Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer sought to distance himself from former leader Jeremy Corbyn today, as one of his shadow cabinet members indicated that he will renege on promises made during the leadership election contest.
Delivering his virtual conference speech from Doncaster, Starmer said the party “deserves” to lose the 2019 election, appealed to patriotic values and heavily criticised Prime Minister Boris Johnson for his handling of the coronavirus.
He said: “When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to. You don’t look at the electorate and ask them: ‘what were you thinking?; You look at yourself and ask: ‘what were we doing?’”
“It’s time to get serious about winning,” he added.
Appealing to people in historically Labour seats that voted Conservative at the last election, he said, “we hear you. Never again will Labour take you or the things you care about for granted. And I ask you: Take another look at Labour. We’re under new leadership.”
On the Prime Minister, Starmer said: “Tory backbenchers know it. His Cabinet knows it. We all know it. He’s just not serious. He’s just not up to the job. Whenever he encounters a problem, Johnson responds either by wishing it away or by lashing out.”
In personal comments, he added: “While Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists. While he was being sacked by a newspaper for making up quotes, I was fighting for justice and the rule of law.”
He sounded a patriotic note, saying he wanted, “A country in which we put family first. A country that embodies the values I hold dear. Decency, fairness, opportunity, compassion and security. Security for our nation, our families and for all of our communities.”
This patriotic turn was underlined by Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy when she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think you’ll see a real change in tone and approach from the Labour Party. I think you’ve already seen it, that we have set out in a number of areas – including my area of foreign policy – that we stand up for Britain, we stand up for British people, we stand up for British interests and we will always put that first. And that we want to come together now, not just as a party but as a country after a very divisive few years.”
The comments were seen as controversial on social media. “Got it. From now on it will be Britain first,” commented journalist Rachel Shabi on Twitter.
Momentum, a grassroots movement on the left of the Labour party criticised the speech, saying: “Keir Starmer taking the fight to Boris Johnson today is welcome, but after months of the leadership not commenting on policies, Keir Starmer’s speech was a missed opportunity to show substance. If Starmer wants to appeal to working class voters, his pitch should be based on solidarity with the working class and defending their interests, not just slogans and platitudes.
Momentum continued: “Even as Starmer pledged to win back trust, his Shadow Foreign Secretary suggested that he is rowing back on key promises from his leadership campaign to tax the super rich and corporations and to bring key services into public ownership. Breaking your promises to your electorate is no way to win back trust. If Keir Starmer wants to win this country’s confidence, he must show he’s a man of his word, not another careerist politician who will say what is needed to win power and then abandon his promises once he gets there.”
Speaking to the BBC’s Daily Politics programme, Nandy was asked whether Starmer would renege on his leadership election promise to raise corporation tax she said, “I expect so.”
When pressed on whether Starmer had also ditched his promise to nationalise key public infrastructure such as railways, she was vague, saying: “I think giving the public more control over how those things work so that they work in the public interest is right.”
Starmer, who as Shadow Brexit Secretary under Corbyn argued for a second referendum, a policy which contributed to the party’s 2019 election defeat, tried to draw a line under the Brexit debate in today’s speech. “The debate between Leave and Remain is over,” he said. “We’re not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe. The Prime Minister has repeatedly promised that he will get a deal. So go on and get one.”