Keir Starmer’s speech – the best thing since stale bread

Keir Starmer delivers the closing keynote speech at Labour’s 2021 conference, 29 September. Photo: screengrab

JVL Introduction

Caroline Molloy of openDemocracy was rather shocked by Keir Starmer’s keynote speech at Labour Party conference and his failure to rise to the challenges of an economic and social system in deep crisis.

It’s not just that Keir Starmer chose to make this an occasion for internecine warfare, focusing inwards and attacking the left while giving the most incompetent and mean-spirited Tory government any of us can remember a virtually free pass.

He also abandoned any progressive stance that might be even loosely associated with the great Labour revival of 2017 and the radical vision  that resonated so widely then, particularly with young people.

Here she takes a long hard look at what he offered – and what has been thrown away.

We also link to the Tysky Sour evaluation of the conference speech, after Molloy’s analysis below.

This article was originally published by openDemocracy on Wed 29 Sep 2021. Read the original here.

Keir Starmer’s speech – the best thing since stale bread

It’s not capitalism that has to change, the Labour leader told us today. It’s you

Keir Starmer’s long-awaited, first in-person speech to Labour’s annual conference was predictably dull: a history lesson focused on the industrial revolution and the Blair government, while skipping silently over everything from Clement Atlee to Jeremy Corbyn.

In terms of policy, there was a pledge to spend more on young people’s mental health – without mentioning the widespread privatisation of that service, which currently sees almost half of its NHS funding being funnelled into private health companies.

There was also a vow to “give our young people the tools of the future” in terms of “digital” and “life” skills. Briefings ahead of the speech suggested that, on this, what Starmer had in mind was training young people to understand their credit scores, their private pension savings, and the contracts their landlords ask them to sign.

So, Keir’s big offer? A Labour government that will teach you to better navigate the choppy waters of capitalism, while paying another company to soothe your worries when the stress becomes overwhelming.

“All we have to do is to learn to adapt,” he said, while labouring a long analogy about his father’s factory and the need to “re-tool” ourselves.

Young people want more. Far from embracing their destiny as simply “Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”, as Liz Truss, now the foreign secretary, memorably described them in 2018, they want the certainty and security of publicly owned services. Polls routinely show that – just as much as their parents and grandparents – young people support public ownership of everything from buses to energy and water to health services.

According to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, these aren’t “bread and butter issues”.

But tell that to the young person seeing their hope and security eroded by the daily grind of what Reeves calls “everyday economics”. They aren’t wanting “jam on it”, as my mother would say. They’re just sick of their privatised bus service jacking up fares and cutting services they rely on to get to college, work or play. Despairing of being unable to afford their own place, given sky-high, privatised utility bills and private rents. Fed up with being paid poverty wages by privatised care companies and call centres, which duck even the minimal adult minimum wage requirements by hiring the young. Stressed by having to compete everywhere – in endless tests, in their online ‘brand’ – in a desperate attempt to win a decent opportunity in a country where, after nearly four decades of privatisation, everything is a marketplace.

And only the privileged can turn to their families for help, with many parents facing the same issues as their children.

No wonder young people are miserable – and that’s before you even get to the impact of global threats such as the pandemic, climate change, right-wing-funded culture wars, and the way Brexit has ended chances of social mobility.

Starmer is quite right to zoom in on mental health – but despite his promises to prioritise prevention, his speech suggests that, in reality, he’ll treat symptoms, not causes.

A pledge for more money to fund support in schools to access treatment more promptly through local “mental health hubs” will be welcomed by mental health charities. But Starmer said nothing of the fact that young people’s mental health is in the state it’s in, in part because in recent years it’s been the most heavily privatised section of our NHS. Currently, 44% of NHS spending in this area goes to the private sector, rising to 97% of all NHS spending when it comes to the most troubled young people. And there have been numerous horror stories about the results.

Starmer did rightly say that the future of the NHS couldn’t “just be about more money”. Was he going to acknowledge the need to stem the billions leaking out to the private sector? No – instead he enthused about how health would be “remade” by a “bewildering” array of robots and virtual reality. “I could talk about this all day,” he said, sounding in reality about as tech-savvy as Boris Johnson in his infamous UN technology speech about how “your mattress will monitor your nightmares”.

Related story on openDemocracy

Keir Starmer blanked me at Labour conference, but we can’t ignore the climate crisis

29 September 2021 | Emma de Saram

The Labour leader should step aside if he can’t deliver on climate action, says a young Green New Deal campaigner

There was another short-lived glimmer of hope in Starmer’s speech, too. That if he wasn’t going to bring our basic services back into public ownership, he would at least better regulate the companies who provide them.

Companies who cut corners, squeeze staff, restrict our ability to talk to a human being and load more work onto hapless consumers, aren’t lacking moral fibre – they’re simply following their legal obligation to maximise shareholder returns. So, when Starmer announced that he would change the legal obligations on company directors, for one happy moment, I thought he was about to pledge to introduce stronger legal duties on them to protect not just profits, but people and the planet. Such a change has been a long-standing demand of campaigners and trade unionists. But Starmer’s plan was nothing of the sort. Instead, it was to make “the long-term success of companies the main priority”.

In such a context, appeals from Starmer to work as ‘partners’ will make no difference whatsoever.

“Pride derives from work,” Starmer announced, amid heckles. But on who you work for, on who owns your employment and your services, not a breath.

Starmer’s speech was just the latest disappointment of this week’s Labour conference in Brighton.

Shadow housing secretary Lucy Powell promised to give first-time buyers “first dibs” on new developments, and expressed some aspirations for more social housing, but said nothing about regulating private rents. That means any higher taxes imposed on private landlords will just get passed on to tenants in England (though Scottish tenants look set to be better protected, under the plans of the new SNP-Green coalition that Starmer dismissed today as a “bad government”).

Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said he wanted “public transport run for the public good” and Reeves promised “the biggest wave of insourcing in a generation” – but there was no detail in either case. If their own leader can get away with claiming that when he said he supported utility nationalisation, he didn’t actually mean it, then hopes of radical change rather recede. Corbyn’s biggest problem was not that voters didn’t like his message – it was that they simply didn’t believe he’d deliver it. How can anyone believe Starmer – feel a sense of trust and security in his promises – when this week he told us that he’s happy to junk his promises for political gain?

Indeed, Starmer and his shadow ministerial colleagues generally talk about insourcing only in the context of Tory donors and COVID contracts, which leaves the distinct impression that companies who don’t donate to the Tory party need not worry about their prospects for more outsourced contracts. After all, some of the largest beneficiaries of the privatisation of swathes of social care, mental and physical health needs are firms founded by men who donated generously to Labour during the Blair years.

A generation of old Blairites like Peter Mandelson, John McTernan, Phil Collins, and their acolytes now staffing Starmer’s operation, have queued up to advise their new leader to match his own version of Blair’s business-friendly ‘prawn cocktail offensive’, Starmer’s Clause IV burp if you like, with a big pitch on “security”. To “lean into [his] brand”, as the former director of public prosecutions.

But how can we have security when we know our basic needs are being exploited for profit, rather than run for the common good? Where is our reward for ‘hard work’ when we’re forced to do a second shift at the end of a hard day, shopping around in the least fun ‘markets’ ever, in a desperate attempt not to be ripped off?

On social care, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth tells us that his plan is “as far-reaching as Nye Bevan’s plan for the NHS”. But in 1948, Bevan brought hospitals into state control and ensured universal coverage, whereas, at present, Labour merely promises that social care workers will be able to negotiate better pay with their largely privatised employers (though not, of course, £15 an hour). Perhaps these workers are supposed to draw comfort instead from Starmer’s undoubtedly heartfelt words about the “nobility of care” and the notion that such work is a “calling”. And on eligibility for social care, neither Starmer nor Ashworth said anything substantive.

And the considerable money that Reeves promised to green the economy will, judging by her and Starmer’s speeches, almost all be poured into business pockets – including businesses that have spent years lobbying against tougher climate targets.

Those who suggest public ownership might be a better approach – like Andy Burnham on social care and Ed Miliband on energy – have reportedly provoked fury in the Labour leader’s office.

Starmer may have taken the stage to Fatboy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now’ – and wound up with a pledge to “seize the day”.

But now is not the time to talk about nationalisation, Starmer told Marr on Sunday, even as social care and mental health markets creak, the gas and electricity market collapses, and the Tories – the Tories! – bring yet another failed rail franchise back under state control.

Facing a backlash over the broken campaign pledge promise on public ownership, Starmer told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg this week that “the world has changed”. Indeed, it has. He just doesn’t appear to have noticed how.


See also the discussion on Tysky Sour:

Comments (16)

  • Paul Smith says:

    The headline made me laugh but what’s happening is not funny!

  • DavidHawkins says:

    “Pride derives from work,”
    Maybe if you are a University Professor or Top Lawyer.
    But what if you work in Poundland, collect our garbage or are on a zero hours contract, what if you are disabled and unable to work ? Are you not entitled to some pride ? What about love, family life, friendship. religion, sport. politics ? What if you are retired ? Does your pride vanish ?
    Are we put on this earth just to work, is our only value as a wage slave ?
    What a mean spirited, ungenerous view of what we mean as human beings.
    Sometimes I feel that some of us on the left are just too generous to our opponents.
    There is such a thing as right and wrong and Starmer is in so many ways on the wrong side of history not least of all his view that the only racism that matters is when White Europeans are the victims.

  • Nick Elvidge says:

    speechless really – stitched up in full light of day…like you think i did not notice your weasel lies? Labour is finished and we are truly up shit creek what with multiple disasters all arriving and Capital gearing up for war vs the People

  • Terry Rees says:

    The clips and detailed accounts of the speech that I have heard are truly depressing. When a Leader of the Labour Party summarises his strategy as getting power as a PM above all else, without outlining at least at least in some detail, what the Party would do with that power to radically change society, then we know things are bad.. I know the argument that only power can give the freedom to get things done, but power does not exist in a vacuum, and the active context is as important as the thing itself. People really do need to know how the power is to be used to address serious current social issues. It all really did seem like an action replay of the early foundational Blair days. The sad thing is that Starmer appears to be intellectually dishonest. To parade around the country in his bid to become leader he accepted much of Corbyn’s policies, emphasised his own 10-point plan and, above all, to assert that he would unify the Party, appears now to be a fraudulent act. The attack on the Left within the Party, using almost Stalinist strategies, is quite frightening. I learned a long time ago that HOW we do politics is as important as WHAT we do. Indeed, one could even argue that HOW we do our politics IS our politics.

  • John Noble says:

    I am absolutely baffled that we chose such an incompetent to take charge of the LP, are we that stupid, have we got the leadership we deserve?

  • Graeme Atkinson says:

    What is the point of the Labour Party? What is the point of being in it?

    The tragedy of the current situation is that any attempt to create a socialist alternative would end up the kind of goatf*** that we have come to know and love about the “left”.

  • Jennifer Joy-Matthews says:

    As the fabulous Zara Sultana said, to Keir Starmer, “Do your job!”
    He needs to stop purging the socialists from the Labour Party and start holding this government to account.

  • Martin Read says:

    Johnson probably uttered the most terrifying words in recent days when, at COP26, he said that this meet could see the beginning of the end of climate change. So, at least it’ll all be over soon!

  • John Bowley says:

    Sir Ker Starmer is hollow, a bag of vacuuous spin and empty platitudes. His quest is about his grab on power. Keir has been nasty with the members of the Labour Party. The appalling events do not encourage public support.

    Am I alone in thinking that Keir Starmer has an unusual accent? Keir comes from the South, rather like me. from South London and from Surrey. But Keir’s boring conference speech was delivered with a quasi Northern tone. Has Starmer, the phoney, like Thatcher, been through speech manipulation?

  • Doug says:

    The most shocking revelation in recent days is that Socialist MP’s are completely split on a challenge
    It begs the question what on earth has to happen to change their minds

  • William Johnston says:

    Terry Rees: “… HOW we do politics is as important as WHAT we do. Indeed, one could even argue that HOW we do our politics IS our politics.”

    Indeed. Another version of “The ends justify the means.” The problem is that the means will always colour the ends. That is why Corbyn gave me so much hope; and which is why those in power were so utterly terrified of him.

  • Pete Sacker says:

    Maybe this is all good news. He gets us to vote for him with socialist policies. Then he cons voters with tory policies… and when he has power he implements socialist policies. Fits current political style of lying or am I being naïve??? [yes, says JVL ed!]

  • Leah Levane says:

    SKS’ reference to Labour being the Party of work was astonishing – I thought it was the Party for workers…..and as for his stuff about Britain leading the Industrial revolution linking it to British creativity and innovation and “honest government” – without the slightest nod to colonialism, the compensation paid to those who enslaved people (being a major source of a great deal of infrastructure) to say nothing of the gross exploitation of the working class…..there is much more that was truly dreadful about what he said – and what he did not say, the groups he did not include….eg mentioned disabled people just once – in passing…..

  • Kuhnberg says:

    Starmer is purging the party of socialists in order to make it more easily manageable, and to shape its image into something he imagines Tory voters would find acceptable. The easily manageable bit is proving something of a disaster, as witness his chaotic conference; and his idea of what Tory voters want is a focus-group cliche which bears little relation to the truth.

    All the evidence suggests that his project to make Labour ‘respectable’ again (i.e. no longer socialist) is failing. His personal ratings in the polls is disastrous, and apart from a brief blip some weeks ago the party is trailing the Tories by between 7 and 11 points. The Tory voters that proliferate below the line in the Daily Mail see him as a fake, a cross between a hypocrite and a con-man, trying to win their votes with false promises, much as he won over the Labour membership with his ten abandoned pledges. But his largest failing is with the millions who voted for us in the last two elections. Those voters are now turning to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats in great numbers because they realize that Labour under Starmer no longer represents their interests.

    On a personal note, I take grave responsibility exception to Starmer’s mantra that those who agree with Corbyn’s observation about the low incidence of antisemitism in Labour are ‘part of the problem’ and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the party: a statement that denies my own lived experience, as well as insultingly suggesting that I am antisemitic, whether I know it or not. This, coupled with his purge of the left, convinces me that he doesn’t want people with my views in the party. Since is this case, why would I ever want to vote Labour as long as he is leader?

  • David Bull says:

    All it lacked was a verse of “Things Can Only Get Better” to be a complete replaying of the Blair years and themes. Starmer is pursuing a witchhunt against the left under the guise of anti-semitism to clear the path for his right wing and conservative policies and centrally controlled party. Things Can Only Get Worse!

  • john ditchfield says:

    In trying to do a retread of the Blair years, the current LP fails to understand that people voted for Blair not for Blairism or New Labour policies. He and Cherie were England’s Camelot – people loved them! That will never be repeated, no more than Thatcher and Thatcherism will ever be repeated. And there is no way that Starmer can match the charisma of Blair. Thus he has to win on policies – on the ability to electrify the electorate with new ideas, with a new vision of society, of a party with the courage to see it through. No way will he and his fusty old New Labour leftovers be able to do that!!

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