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Keir Starmer’s conservative path to power

If you want to understand how conservative Britain really is, take a look at Keir Starmer’s speeches. The Labour leader has recognised both the electoral limits of leftwing politics and a deeper truth about the people he hopes to govern.

Starmer is learning what all successful Labour leaders have grasped: you can pursue a reformist agenda in office only once voters believe it is rooted in their values and that they can trust you to know when to rein in your radicalism. His policy positions and pronouncements increasingly acknowledge that the UK is a small-c conservative country.

This is not about vote share — the combined non-Tory vote consistently exceeds blue support at elections — but a broader recognition of the innate conservatism of many Labour voters towards traditions, their nation or local community.

This sentiment is what Boris Johnson and the Brexiters tapped into. It is expressed in patriotism, a belief in strong defence, the rule of law and a wariness about social change which those who style themselves as progressive too often ignore. (Even the term progressive is problematic. Does anyone outside of active politics ever use the word?)

For three years, Starmer has stressed Labour’s commitment to these values as he exorcised the ghosts of Corbynism. Yet while he has largely succeeded in reassuring the public that his party has changed, voters don’t understand his ambitions. Now, in an under-reported speech last weekend, Starmer may have found the overarching theme to solve both problems.

Starmer’s speech to the Progressive Britain conference was actually a rebuke to progressive politics as they have been conducted of late. He rounded on those whose approach had seen Labour “drifting away from working people for a long time”, and attitudes which displayed “patronising contempt for those who fly our flag”.

His observation that, “I have never believed there was an appetite for culture war politics in this country” is not merely a swipe at Tories but also some on his own side. Starmer is learning (albeit slowly) the risks of playing to the gallery. The trans rights furore in Scotland which preceded Nicola Sturgeon’s exit was a sharp warning about both progressive over-reach and the intolerance which can accompany it. The working voters Labour seeks will not be hooked by the cultural critiques of activists or what one close ally calls “the ideas of wealthy communists”.

Instead Starmer offered a more compelling path, founded on stability and security, a language he worried “does not come naturally to progressive politics”. Yet such language has always come easily to winning Labour leaders. Starmer claims to be inspired by Harold Wilson, but this was his most Blairite speech to date.

This new approach is clearly needed. Polling for consultants Portland Communications shows voters are unclear about the change Labour offers. While 31 per cent said they had some idea of Starmer’s vision, 41 per cent did not. Among a key demographic — non-graduates living near major cities — his rating is lower than Rishi Sunak’s.

Individual security, or as Starmer puts it “secure foundations”, should be a bedrock Labour cause because the issue is most acute for those with the least. Those with no bargaining power at work or the means to move away from areas where antisocial behaviour goes unchecked are most at the mercy of economic storms. An emphasis on restoring “dignity” will speak to many lost supporters who voted to “take back control”.

The issues which matter to ordinary families are those which erode their sense of security, be it the cost of living, a lack of affordable housing, insecure jobs, unchecked antisocial behaviour or degraded public services on which they have no choice but to rely. New challenges like the AI revolution will only exacerbate the problem.

Starmer’s “security and hope” pitch also offers cover and justification for the economic, industrial and social policies Labour wants to pursue — from bolstering workers’ rights to planning reform for affordable housing. He can argue that the Conservative party has proved poor at conserving the things people value, whether the NHS, clean rivers or the dream of home ownership.

Recent months have seen Starmer shifting policy positions to match the values of target voters. His refusal to commit to abolishing Tory public order legislation, which critics say stifles the right to protest, is one example. Whatever the cause, Starmer knows most Britons instinctively side with those trying to get to work rather than those disrupting their journey. On immigration, tax, antisocial behaviour and pledging only incremental Brexit reforms, Starmer is pulling Labour on to the small-c conservative centre-ground.

Couching Labour’s ambitions in the language of stability is the key to winning consent for a reforming agenda. It ties transformational aspirations to the hopes of ordinary families. And it has been made easier because post-Brexit Tory policies have already made the case for economic intervention. One speech does not make a plan for power. Rhetoric outweighed measurable proposals, but Starmer is on to something.

Towards the end of his speech, Starmer affected to be unmoved by anyone disappointed with this approach. “If that sounds conservative then let me tell you: I don’t care.” Don’t believe him. He cares very much. In fact, it’s an essential part of the strategy.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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