Starmer: ‘We can win or we can pursue political purity – but we cannot do both’

Sienna Rodgers

Keir Starmer declared in his speech at Scottish Labour conference today that the Labour “can win” and “make change” or it can “pursue apparent political purity inside this party” – but it “cannot do both”.

Offering a full-throated defence of his approach to internal party rows, he warned that “our greatest hurdle might not be the Tories, but ourselves” and said: “Running away from the mainstream is running away from voters.”

“Our party will continue to change, and I won’t apologise for that. Tony Blair said the only Labour tradition he’d wanted to change was losing – too right,” Starmer remarked. He also praised Gordon Brown’s style of premiership.

The UK Labour leader described his party as “fierce in our defence of liberty, forever alert, and apologists for no-one” – the latter an implicit reference to Labour left MPs who have been criticised amid the war in Ukraine for their attitude to NATO.

11 Labour MPs last week withdrew their signatures from a Stop the War statement after being asked to do so by the chief whip. The letter, written before the invasion of Ukraine, refuted “the idea that NATO is a defensive alliance”.

Labour MP Zarah Sultana complained that comments from Labour sources around the Stop the War statement, which she initially signed, had “crossed the line from false to dangerous” after she received a death threat.

Starmer told a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting at the start of the week: “Let me be very clear. There will be no place in this party for false equivalence between the actions of Russia and the actions of NATO.”

John McDonnell decided not to attend a Stop the War event on Wednesday after it was reported that the party would look closely at what was said at the rally – and could remove the whip based on what was said.

Speaking at the conference today, Starmer warned: “We are in a new world. This will mean making sacrifices. But those sacrifices are as nothing, compared to the suffering of the people of Ukraine.”

He promised that the next Labour government would “rebuild our own defences” and encouraged the conference to “thank our own military for all that they do to keep us safe” as well as “all of our military families”.

Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s speech to Scottish Labour conference. 

Thank you, Bea, for that fantastic introduction, it’s great to see you again and to be back in Glasgow making my first address to you as Labour leader – as Anas did yesterday. He is bringing new energy, and a focus on the future.

I know, because we are working so closely together, that he has the ideas and the determination to change the course of Scottish politics. He is leading us into important local elections here in just two months’ time. Anas, you have my support to make the changes that we need, to take Scottish Labour forward.

With a rejuvenated Scottish Labour Party and a UK Labour Party, laser-focused on doing what it takes to win a general election, we have huge opportunities ahead of us and the chance to change Britain again. Labour can win a general election. Scotland can choose not just to oppose the Tories but to replace them with a Labour government.

A Labour government that I will lead, founded on a new contract with the people – the people of Scotland and people in every part of the UK. A Labour government like those that have went before that will forge, for our times, a new Britain. A new Britain that Scottish people aren’t just part of but proud of.

Conference, I also want to say how important it is for us all to be together in the same room. Because, I was elected to lead our party during lockdown. At the height of the pandemic, I looked forward to gatherings like this again.

I could scarcely have believed that when we did come back together, it would be against the backdrop of war in Europe. The events we are witnessing right now will stay with us forever. These are dark days, peace in Europe has been threatened by an imperialist aggressor.

Images I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime – Russian tanks rolling into a European country, soldiers kissing their children goodbye, as they stay to fight, and families fleeing for the border. The world has reacted with anger and dismay, nowhere more so than here in Britain, where British people continue to show steadfast support for the people of Ukraine.

We are in a new world. This will mean making sacrifices. But those sacrifices are as nothing, compared to the suffering of the people of Ukraine. Their courage is inspiring the world just as the actions of Putin repel the world.

Let me be crystal clear, there is no justification for Putin’s actions. They are an affront to the values of this country, this party, and the international institutions, which we helped to build.

For what crime does Putin accuse the people of Ukraine? It is their yearning for openness and democracy. To be free to determine their own future, and decide for themselves what alliances they make.

Labour is the party of collective security. Labour is the party of NATO. And Labour stands with the Ukrainian people. We are demanding the strongest sanctions against Putin – we must tackle the oligarchs here and go after their money, and while we’re at it, clean up our own politics, once and for all.

And yes, the next Labour government will also rebuild our own defences. Royal Navy ships, built here on the Clyde have been crucial to keeping safe passage in the international waters of the Black Sea. RAF personnel and Royal Navy men and women playing their part from bases in the North and West of Scotland, responding to the regular testing of our own territorial security, by Russia.

Conference, let us thank our own military for all that they do to keep us safe. Let us thank all of our military families, as they follow these events anxiously.

But let’s also be clear what Putin is afraid of – his fear is order and liberty. Afraid of democracy, of openness, of progress, and of a world which will move on without him. He is afraid of everything that we are most proud of.

We know Putin’s playbook. He seeks division so we must meet him with unity. He believes the benefits of aggression outweigh the consequences so we must take a stand. And he believes the West is too corrupted to do the right thing, so we must prove him wrong. I believe we can.

The rule of law and the pursuit of justice have been important to me all my life. Playing by the rules is part of who I am. My dad was a toolmaker in a factory and my mum, a nurse in our beloved NHS. I became the Chief Prosecutor for England and Wales.

My parents taught me that in life you need to stick up for yourself but also stick up for those, who can’t always resist the bully on their own.

Friends, Anas, like me, is a father. And he spoke to you yesterday about one of his hardest times as a parent. I want to say to Adam, Anas’ son and to all of you here. It matters that you have elected our first leader who looks like Anas, and his family. It matters.

Together, as Labour leaders, we won’t just talk the talk, we will walk the walk. And, we will keep challenging ourselves too. In your words, Anas: it is a fight for all of us.

Conference, you know, I try to see the best in people. I am an optimist, I believe in the politics of optimism. Yet we are living in a time when right and wrong doesn’t seem to matter in government.

At the height of the pandemic, every British family was touched by worry or tragedy. Everyone was affected because they followed the rules. But, some – and one man in particular – felt that the rules just didn’t apply to him. I refuse to accept that.

I refuse to accept the pain and sacrifice of so many British families being cheapened, or laughed at. No wonder then that under the Tories, trust in politics is now at an all-time low. Two thirds of the public think that the way British politicians act undermines democracy. Six out of ten people think politicians are likely to lie to them.

That’s inevitable when we have a government that is misleading the public and covering up their own wrongdoing to save the Prime Minister’s job. It is also deliberate.

This Tory government is so disreputable that even the Scottish Tories are actually embarrassed by it. It is a government that wallows in cynicism. It wants the public to believe that politics is no longer a force for good. And, of course, they don’t care about the consequences of their actions, including the consequences for the Union.

It might suit the Tories – as much as it suits the SNP – to keep Scotland stuck on pause in the politics of 2014 forever, but I am calling Boris Johnson out.

I want to lead Britain because I believe in it, in all its parts and all of its differences. In all of our home nations, in all of the good and decent people who share the same hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations, the same land and the same coasts. A common language and inheritance, and the same threats to our way of life.

Boris Johnson and his Tory party pose as patriotic defenders of the Union. But, every day that he remains in power, he weakens it. He breaks everything he touches and he won’t change.

Even the Scottish Tories know it – weakening the bonds between people, weakening the promises of one generation to the next, weakening the legitimacy of the office he holds. Left to their downward spiral, the Tories would destroy everything that they profess to hold dear.

So when I am asked how we will win, this is where I start. I refuse to accept that we are stuck where we are now. There is another way to lead this country. This United Kingdom – and the nations which come together in it. Our best days are ahead of us.

I refuse to accept that there is no place to talk about the future and no way to bring people together on the things we have in common and the change we need to make. I refuse to accept that all that matters is where people were in the Scottish referendum, or the Brexit referendum.

Just as I refuse to accept that the British people no longer care about what happens in Europe. Or that we will tolerate child poverty rising again, here at home. I refuse to accept that the biggest cost of living crisis of our lifetimes should break the backs of ordinary families.

It is because I believe in the British people that I am angry that they have a government more concerned with handing contracts to their mates than addressing our challenges.

It is because I believe in our United Kingdom, that unique partnership of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Because I believe in us, that I am angry that the Tories have allowed the UK to be a place that is laughed about abroad.

And conference, I am angry that we have allowed these Tories to beat us. This is on all of us to fix and we can fix it. It is our duty to win. I believe we can. But still our greatest hurdle might not be the Tories, but ourselves.

There is no rule in politics that disillusionment with the Tories delivers a Labour government. Labour wins, as it always has done, when we have the ideas, the optimism, and the trust of the British people. So we need to be honest with ourselves – trust in us declined too.

We are the party of working people; our founding and defining mission. But too many working people came to see us as far removed from their lives. We put our priorities above theirs; our ideas as more important, than their experiences.

So yes, our duty to win does mean keeping our discipline. Never losing sight of who it is that we need to convince – working people and especially those who voted for electoral opponents.

We can win and we can make change or we can pursue apparent political purity inside this party. But please make no mistake, we cannot do both. Running away from the mainstream is running away from voters.

As Gordon Brown, our last Prime Minister, said: “It is the fighters and believers that change the world.” He is right. We have changed our world before and we can do it again.

In Gordon’s day, the lights in Downing Street burned late into the night. Not for parties. But because here was a Scottish MP who never rested from the task at hand, restless always to improve the lives, not just of Scots, but of families struggling to pay their bills in every part of Britain.

The minimum wage, the Winter Fuel Allowance, the Child Trust Fund, the Child Tax Credit, paid paternity leave – thank you Gordon, for your leadership in office, and since. Global leadership on vaccines, for the poorest countries, and closer to home – leadership of our commission on the UK’s future.

That commission will create a new blueprint for a new Britain, that the next Labour government – my government – will build. It will be a new Britain which puts security, prosperity and respect, at the heart of our politics again.

A new Britain with a government that knows to serve the public is a privilege, not a birthright. Ours will be a government that works for every part of the country, every region, and every nation of Britain. For us, “levelling up” isn’t a slogan. It is in our DNA. And it’s what Labour governments are for.

As we come out of the pandemic, I have spent my time in the places we need to win. Talking to people about the rising cost of living, their ideas for their town, their experiences at work, their hopes for their kids, the things that matter to them. And their hopes for a better society, after the trauma of Covid.

They have ideas, they want change, they have ambition. All they want is a government that shares their ambition. Labour’s new contract with the British people is rooted in these thousands of conversations. Something tangible. So you know how a Labour government will lead.

This contract is founded on three principles – security, prosperity and respect.

The first term in the contract is security. Everyone has the basic right to feel safe in their own community. We all need to know that the NHS is there for us when we need it. And if we work hard we should also have a right to job security.

The second term in the contract is prosperity. Everyone should have the opportunity to thrive. To realise our ambitions and make a good life for ourselves and our families. To have the skills we need to prosper.

And then there is a third term in my contract. Respect is a less obvious political virtue than security and prosperity, but it is every bit as important. Everyone has the right to live in places we care for and to have our lives and ambitions taken seriously, and to be valued for who we are and what we do.

Let me be clear, that means respect for Scotland within our union. That’s why Gordon’s commission is so important because it is examining how to reform the UK. Not just to acknowledge or accommodate devolution, but to give it proper respect and unleash the true power of the idea.

Not the devolution of grievance, or one-upmanship. But the vision of devolution that Anas is talking about and that our Mayors in England are also talking about – pushing power away from parliaments and towards people – and towards great cities like Glasgow, which is being let down so badly by the SNP.

That’s why the next Labour government will govern for all of Britain. We will change Westminster, and Whitehall and we’ll clean it up at the same time. Under the Tories, our country has become increasingly more unequal. The Tories talk of levelling up is not serious.

In contrast, Labour in power will always be alongside people. Not weary of finding solutions to problems old and new…

As North Lanarkshire Labour have with their school meals and activities programme all through the holidays to make sure no child there was left behind. Or as North Ayrshire Labour are doing with their solar farms and wind turbines – turning their communities into net exporters of energy. This is the difference that being in power makes.

This Tory government is so distracted, it has no plan for household finances and no economic planning at all. And I ask you, what do these Tories and the SNP have in common?

Well, beyond being joined at the hip in wanting to turn every election into the same referendum again, and again, they have no industrial strategy to meet the challenge of our age. They don’t have the credible policies we need to create and sustain decent jobs.

Decades of power between them – neither the Tories nor the SNP has done enough to secure the jobs and industries of the future.

The so-called party of British business is barely able to talk to business. Whilst the party of North Sea nationalism is now selling Scotland’s offshore wind to every foreign energy interest imaginable. So we also have a new opportunity now to have a Labour government that will be in partnership with business, to create work. Because Labour is the party of work, we always have been.

There is no challenge ahead of us, whether it’s automation or climate change, that we cannot rise to. President Biden has said; “When I hear climate change, I think jobs.” He is right, and this must be our mindset too.

That’s why the Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, is out talking to business every week about our plan to buy, make and sell more in Britain. That’s why we have proposed Labour’s Climate Investment Pledge.

We will meet the challenge of the next generation and the urgency of the climate emergency with £28bn of green capital investment every year until 2030. That’s equivalent to more than half of the current defence budget. That’s what we’re about – decent jobs, with a future.

Jobs that support communities and allow individuals and families to prosper and live well. Jobs for those workers in Fife who can see the offshore industry of the future being constructed whilst political failure in Edinburgh and London, leaves them idle.

No one should support the Labour Party simply to oppose the Tories or for that matter the SNP.  It is the honour of my life to be the Leader of our Party but I tell you, I have no ambition to be Leader of the Opposition. We gather here not just to oppose the Tories but to replace them.

Throughout our history, our leaders have been driven by our love for our country but also full of passion for what more it can be. Each time, Labour has built a new Britain – Attlee, Wilson, Blair and Brown; each has sought office to change this country. That is my ambition too, not just to oppose the Tories, but to replace them.

Scotsmen, and women, including from this city, have been integral to the great Labour governments of which we are so proud. The next Labour government, the Labour government that I will lead, needs those Scottish voices again – to help us build our new Britain.

Conference, I want to welcome Scottish Labour MPs to join Ian Murray in our task. Thank you, Ian. I wants to win more seats in Scotland, not just to achieve Labour’s majority, but to have more MPs like Ian – forthright and determined that Scotland is not just stuck between two governments, fighting the same constitutional battles day after day, and year after year.

I do understand why there are people in Scotland on both sides of the constitutional divide who despair of this Tory government. Who could blame them? But just as we must defeat the cynicism of the Tories, so we should be confident that ours are the bigger ideas. That working together, we can achieve more than we achieve alone.

That is the difference between simply opposing this Tory government and replacing it. That’s the difference between Labour MPs using their votes to make change and not just posture. That’s the difference between the SNP failing to support our windfall tax on big energy to cut the bills of millions of families. That’s the difference between backing Labour’s plans, and an SNP that fails to turn up.

Scottish votes have never carried more weight in a general election. Those who pretend that Scotland can’t choose the government it gets are wrong.

I understand the scale of the task that Anas and I have got. I’ve never taken on any job because I thought it was going to be easy.

It was John Smith, the night before he died, who told us that “the chance to serve our country was all that Labour sought”. I have spent my own working life serving this country. My values, our Labour values, have changed Britain before. We can build a new future together.

We must be clear-headed in our determination to win the people’s trust. Our party will continue to change, and I won’t apologise for that. Tony Blair said the only Labour tradition he’d wanted to change was losing – too right.

We are changing Labour again for the challenges of our time. Don’t let us sit here in this conference and just oppose the Tories. Let us build the alternative.

I am going to take my contract to the people of Scotland, and every part of Britain. It is my solemn promise that their priorities, are again the priorities of the Labour Party. A new Britain, that Scotland isn’t just part of, but proud of. A United Kingdom, reengaged in the world. Fierce in our defence of liberty, forever alert, and apologists for no one.

Conference, Downing Street should be a place where the lights are always on. Where no matter the time, work is being done by serious people in the service of our country.  A Labour government, a chance to serve. This is who I am, and that is my ambition.

Thank you.

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