BRIGHTON – The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party took aim Wednesday at a Conservative government that has presided over empty gas pumps and one of Europe’s worst coronavirus death tolls — but still holds a lead over Labour in most opinion polls.
That sums up the dilemma for Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has struggled to break through to a largely indifferent public despite the many problems besetting Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration.
Starmer sought to change that with a hefty speech at the party’s annual conference in the seaside English city of Brighton, arguing that Labour is “back in business” after a decade of election disappointments. He argued that his personal story — a working-class lad who went to law school and became a public prosecutor — made him a better leader than posh, blustering Johnson, whom he dismissed as “a trickster who has performed his one trick.”
“I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man,” Starmer said. “I think he is a trivial man. I think he’s a showman with nothing left to show.”
Labour has been out of office since 2010, a decade that has brought the country three Conservative prime ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May and Johnson.
Johnson’s Conservatives won a thumping 80-seat majority in Parliament in December 2019 by winning over voters in post-industrial northern England towns who had voted Labour for decades but felt neglected by successive governments. Those areas also voted strongly to leave the European Union, a cause Johnson championed and Labour largely opposed.
Starmer wants to win those voters back by showing that Labour is not the party of urban left-wingers its detractors like to depict. In his speech, he tackled many voters’ biggest concern about Labour — that the social democratic party will hike taxes and hobble the economy.
“Too often in the history of this party, our dream of the good society falls foul of the belief that we will not run a strong economy,” he said. “But you don’t get one without the other."
He promised to improve workers’ conditions and the economy with “the blessing of British business,” in a step back from the class-conflict rhetoric of the party’s left wing.
A 59-year-old former national chief prosecutor, Starmer was elected Labour leader in April 2020 to replace hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had led the party to two heavy election defeats in 2017 and 2019 and was accused by critics of tolerating anti-Semitism in party ranksa.
Yet Starmer has struggled to make an impact while the country’s attention was consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has left at least 135,000 people in Britain dead -- the highest death toll in Europe after Russia. In recent days a fuel-supply crisis triggered by a truck-driver shortage has shut down thousands of gas stations and led to long lines of frustrated motorists around the country.
Starmer said that made a mockery of Johnson's promise to “level up” the country by spreading economic opportunity.
“Level up? You can’t even fill up," he said.
The televised speech to hundreds of party members was Starmer's attempt to break with the Corbyn era and set out his own vision of a party in touch with mainstream voters.
But Starmer remains caught between fueding Labour camps. Many Labour members think the party must veer to the center to win, as it did under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who won three successive election victories. But Corbyn’s still-numerous supporters loathe Blair and want Starmer to stick to his predecessor’s socialist policies of nationalization and spending hikes.
Labour's splits were clear as Starmer was sporadically heckled during a speech that lasted almost 90 minutes. Starmer spoke beyond the room to the wider British public, taking aim at both the Conservative government and critics within his own party.
He depicted Johnson's administration as a chumocracy that awarded its friends with contracts while inequality in British society grew — something he linked to the country’s high coronavirus toll.
“There were cracks in British society and COVID seeped into them,” Starmer said.
He took on his hecklers by asking delegates whether they preferred “shouting slogans or changing lives.” He also set out a series of election-style promises to improve social care, education, working conditions and innovation and to fight climate change.
Britain is not scheduled to hold a national election until 2024, though many expect Johnson to call one at least a year sooner. The governing Tories hold their own four-day convention in Manchester starting Sunday.
Some Labour members were convinced by the heartfelt, policy-heavy speech from a leader often depicted as staid and dull.
“I think he's going the right way,” said Katherine Harlow, a member of Labour's youth wing. “I think he's still got to do a lot to win over the left, but if he focuses on young people and giving us what we need, I think a lot of people will be persuaded by it.”
But Starmer's speech didn't sit well with all of Corbyn's supporters.
“I was disgusted by it,” said Sandra Wyman, a delegate from Leeds in northern England. “I'm very proud to be a socialist. And I feel like an endangered species at this conference.”