How did Keir Starmer’s speech to the Labour conference go? Our panel’s verdict

Polly Toynbee: Too Blairite? These policies were well to the left of the 1997 pledge card

It was just what conference delegates came to hear: Keir Starmer walloped the Tories’ “endless cycle of crises”, the government that “lost control of the economy”, and packed plenty of “fairer, greener” policy punch. The welcome surprise: a publicly owned Great British Energy company that will scoop the rewards of renewables.

Any Labour people flinching at his avowed “centrism”, remember the party of the centre ground always wins, because winning defines where the centre is – and it moves with the times. Liz Truss vacates the field, openly rejecting fairness, rewarding the rich; she has vanished far further right than the Corbyn manifesto went left field.

Too Blairite? Good, if that means winning three elections in a row. But otherwise, no, his policies were well left of that timid 1997 pledge card. A totemic, publicly owned energy company would have been unthinkable to Tony Blair. Making private schools pay VAT to fund state schools likewise. Top income tax back at 45%? Never until Labour’s last month in 2010. A turbo-boost to union power with the right to recruit in every workplace was never Blair. In 1997, Labour imposed an agonising two-year spending freeze to bolster credibility; but here comes a cost of living and minimum wage uplift with a massive investment in insulation, skills, clean energy and NHS training.

Few policies ever reach the public from cheering conference halls. To make all these fly, the shadow cabinet needs to get better at hammering them out over and over until voters quote them in their sleep.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

Moya Lothian-McLean: He’s finally found his groove – but can he be trusted to deliver?

It was probably the best speech Keir Starmer has ever given as Labour leader. Admittedly, that bar is not especially high. But in his hour-long address to those gathered in Liverpool for the 2022 Labour conference, Starmer articulated the most comprehensive, detailed and bold vision offered yet during his two years in the top job. Reported last-minute tweaks to his pitch were worth it: for the first time, there was policy – lots of it – to vote for. The green revolution was top of the agenda, with a blockbuster pledge that the first year of a Labour government would see the creation of a new, publicly owned green energy company drawing the loudest cheers.

Finally, Starmer (and his speechwriters) successfully located the right register to appeal to the elusive “working people” of Britain, only occasionally slipping into the tired focus group nationalism that has previously dogged his messaging. Instead he hammered home Tory failures to level up and managed, mostly, to tread the difficult line of appealing to a variety of polarised groups. “Whether you’ve voted leave or remain, you’ve been let down,” he said.

More important, he offered solutions. Jobs via a green revolution. Policy to ensure first-time buyers can get on the housing ladder. Decision-making back in the hands of local communities. Thousands of new NHS staff. Energy companies footing skyrocketing bills instead of profiting from working people. The questions now: can he actually gain the support to deliver – particularly from traditional Labour supporters who have felt alienated by his internal leftwing purge and feeble response to allegations of racism and Islamophobia within Labour? And will he, given his history of rescinding pledges?

Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media

Carys Roberts: At last, Labour has grasped the threat – and the opportunity – of the climate crisis

The most striking element of Keir Starmer’s speech was the centrality of the green agenda. From the conference slogan to the well-developed policies – not just “Great British Energy” but also the national wealth fund – it is clear that Labour has grasped the threat posed by the climate crisis, and also the opportunity that could be seized in tackling it. Making “green” policies central is smart politics – the public want action on climate – and will also please members: GB energy got the largest cheer in the hall.

He also was more willing than previously to tease out the antagonisms that are central to good politics. He stressed that politics was about choices, and deciding who paid. The windfall tax provides an example of what those choices might look like under a Starmer-led government. With the Conservatives choosing to risk a sound economy for the sake of tax cuts for the wealthy, this is fertile ground for Labour.

That said, in an era of crisis there are many challenges facing the country – from the sky-high cost of childcare to public services pushed to the brink, to the breakdown of nature. Between now and the next election, the task for Starmer and his shadow cabinet will be to apply the same ambition and political analysis across policy areas for a bold and compelling offer.

Carys Roberts is executive director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

Fern Bast: ‘Working people’, ‘fairness’, ‘a new deal’. I hope it’s not just words

I’ve been sceptical about Keir Starmer so far – my enthusiasm for the Don’t Pay campaign partly reflects the sense that Labour isn’t speaking up enough for all of us who are being clobbered by inflation.

But his speech hit most of the targets I was looking for. His take on energy, with a Great British Energy company that is publicly owned, was very welcome. I want to find out more about that. Talk of new jobs and insulating homes was welcome too. I hope he’ll defend the NHS from more private ownership now that we’ve become a cheap, bargain basement country. Extra medical staff, as he pledged, is essential.

His reference to a new way of governing was less clear. Electoral reform didn’t get a mention either. Unions were only mentioned once, about 45 minutes in. That seemed strange to me – I hope working people are listened to and consulted. “Working people”, “fairness”, a “new deal” – I hope it’s not just words. So many people are in debt right now and he must think about them. Overall, though, this was better than I expected. He said he was offering hope for the future; I hope he can deliver it.

Fern Bast is a pensioner who lives in West Yorkshire; she is part of the Don’t Pay campaign

Katy Balls: It certainly made for uncomfortable viewing for Tory MPs

Monarchy. Tick. Glory to Ukraine. Tick. Cracking down on antisemitism. Tick. Keir Starmer’s speech was an exercise in neutralising the party’s past vulnerabilities. And he couldn’t have had much better timing for his bid to sell Labour as the new centre ground – with a YouGov poll giving the party its biggest poll lead since 2017 as the fallout from Liz Truss’s tax-cutting bonanza continues.

The clear blue water between the two parties on bankers’ bonuses and the top rate of income tax allowed Starmer to paint the Tories as out of touch. The market reaction to Truss’s plans – with nearly 300 mortgage deals in the past 24 hours being pulled – meant he could also suggest the Tories’ plans were not credible.

It certainly made uncomfortable viewing for Tory MPs. As one supporter of Rishi Sunak put it to me by the end of the speech: “Can’t believe we’ve got ourselves in a position where Labour are walking around with a spring in their step. Fuck my life.”

Yet many Tories think that their current fortunes are down to internal problems, rather than an inspiring opposition. Starmer’s speech shows how he has succeeded in pitching Labour as a party that swing voters should not be scared of. But the reason Tories fear the next election relates more to self-forced errors than anything Starmer said about his own plans today.

Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor

Neal Lawson: Starmer still doesn’t get the enormity of the challenge in front of him

Keir Starmer gave a speech that was surefooted, with strong lines on green growth. But it reflected the essential strategy: hope the government goes on failing, present a small target, and get over the line. It’s working and it will be a relief to win. But relief could soon fade.

This was good speech for normal times. But times are abnormal. This was politics without a project. Where was the analysis of the zeitgeist, the new political economy or ways of governing the country and public services?

The differences with previous victories, cited by Starmer in his speech, stand out: 1997 saw benign circumstances but much heavier intellectual and cultural lifting by the leadership; in 1945, Labour inherited a country exhausted but remade it based on strong working-class movements and liberal ideas from Keynes and Beveridge, a progressive alliance.

Starmer has yet to understand that even his improving policy agenda stands little chance within a political system designed to thwart necessary radicalism. His decision to reject the conference vote on proportional representation makes it harder to win and impossible to govern in these crisis-ridden times.

Recent election results in Sweden show what happens when social democrats are too timid and technocratic; in Italy, when progressives divide. In both countries the rise of rightwing populism is alarming.

This is the long shadow looming over Labour and the country. The party will either build itself a cage from any victory – or recognise it needs a broad progressive alliance to lay the foundations for a very new political settlement.

Neal Lawson is director of the cross-party campaign organisation Compass