Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Starmer’s ‘why Labour’ message needs to get slicker

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Keir Starmer has been considerably less discombobulated by the election announcement than the party that made it, but he still has some catching up to do. The Labour leader knows that he has to answer the question of ‘why Labour’ to voters who have already largely accepted that there is a strong reason to change from the Tories. To that end, his speech this morning was an attempt to explain to the public what Labour now stands for.

Slightly improbably, Starmer started by telling the audience that they really should visit Oxted. The reason for this was that Starmer sees Oxted as being the way he can explain his politics and what he stands for. He was starting with his biography (again).

Anyone in the Westminster bubble could have written large sections of the speech for him because they’d heard many of the sentences before. In fact, before this election, Starmer would have been making jokes about the lines ‘my father was a toolmaker’ and ‘pebbledash semi’, but he delivered them today as though he’d never said them before — because an election campaign is when normal voters start to pay attention and hear for the first phrases we have all become used to. The Labour leader wanted voters to see that he understands what it means for a family to struggle to pay the bills, and that he believed in ‘the basic ordinary hope that Britain will be better for your children’.

An election campaign is when normal voters start to pay attention and hear for the first phrases we have all become used to.

More than presenting himself and his backstory to the public, the bigger challenge for Starmer was introducing the explanation of ‘why Labour’ to voters. It’s not something Labour has managed to articulate very clearly up to this point, relying instead on voters’ frustration with the Tories rather than the attraction of Starmer’s party itself. Today the Labour leader explained his party’s priorities as being ‘economic security, border security, national security’, adding that this was voters’ ‘core test. It’s always their core test. The definition of service.’

This underlines why the 2024 Labour campaign is not going to be groaning under the weight of the retail offers made by Starmer’s predecessors over the past 14 years. Those campaigns, despite offering all kinds of free things, did not win the election for Labour. Now, Starmer is trying to sell his party as being serious and maybe even a little boring in contrast to the constant ‘chaos’ of the Tory party. He described the Conservative campaign so far as changing ‘every day’, characterising the national service policy announcement as being the party rooting around in its ‘toy box’.

The latest Tory attack on Starmer is that he is ‘weary’ and ‘sleepy’— something he laughed off in the question-and-answer session following the speech. The Labour leader also had a better answer to the question of why he’d dropped his previous pledge to abolish university tuition fees; when he had been quizzed about this on Friday he had sounded very unsure of himself. When journalists asked why he was talking about his backstory again, he explained that it was important to repeat things to the public — though he didn’t say explicitly that this was because most normal people pay no attention to politics outside elections. Now that they are paying attention, Starmer needs to hit his stride. He didn’t quite manage that today, but the Labour leader still seems more comfortable with having an election than the party that called it.