Sir Keir Starmer is under pressure to deliver the performance of a lifetime | Andrew Rawnsley

TThe legendary philosopher of the time Joe Strummer once said: “The future is not written. This quote from The Clash frontman makes a surprise appearance on page 21 of the trial published on behalf of Sir Keir Starmer in which he spends 13,000 words trying to respond to criticism that he doesn’t stand up for anything because he doesn’t believe in anything.

I think I understand why Sir Keir likes this strummerism. One of the most acute challenges the Labor leader faces is that many people think his future is already written – and not in a good way. Eighteen months after taking office, many in and outside his own party conclude he is doomed to lead to another Labor defeat in the next election. Starting with a shriveled base of just 202 Labor MPs, his task never seemed easy, but for a while there were some glimmers of hope that he was climbing the mountain. Even if he did not win, it seemed possible that he could create the conditions for a dramatic improvement in Labor’s position. These hopes have evaporated in recent months. The loss of Hartlepool’s by-election was followed by a near-death experience for Batley and Spen. After a promising start for his leadership, his approval ratings plummeted, then plunged and have now bottomed out. negative territory.

This fuels the widely held impression that the Labor leader is in trouble. His excuse is that Covid limited the topics he could talk about and prevented from campaigning. Of course, the pandemic denied him the opportunity to try to connect with voters, but that alibi has now expired.

You cannot walk on water as the Leader of the Opposition. Momentum is essential. If you are not making visible progress then you are going backwards. The more people see him as another Labor leader who cannot win, the harder it is for him to impose his authority and ideas on his party.

“He lost the left,” said a Labor MP. That’s right, but he never really had them in the first place. The Continuity The Corbynites were always going to denounce him as an empty haircut in a centrist costume that lacks a radical soul. Sir Keir is also testing the patience of people on the other end of the party. They are frustrated that he has not drawn a sharper line under the catastrophic experience with Corbynism. They complain that it lacks the flair and urgency to effect the transformation necessary to make Labor a party the country could consider restoring confidence in power. “It’s over for Keir,” said a New Labor major who voted for him to become leader. “It’s not a bit finished. It’s completely over. It is clear that he has no strategy for the party or the country. What we are looking at now is a definitive defeat in the next election.

It is a point of view of the extreme end of the fatalistic spectrum. It is more widely true that the Brighton Labor Conference is swirling with concern. Friends and enemies alike say it is a “pass or break” week for the leader. At a minimum, he should leave the conference looking stronger than he does to enter.

As of this writing, there is a significant risk that he finds himself not with his authority strengthened, but further diminished. Most Labor MPs assumed his plan for this conference was to use it as a platform for communication with the public. So there is a great deal of perplexity that Sir Keir was persuaded to make it an arena of internal conflict by unleashing an unexpected battle over Labor’s constitutional rules. After choosing this fight without first making sure that he could win it, he lost the first round when the scale of the opposition to his proposals forced him to give up submitting them to the vote of the national executive committee. party. Regardless of the weekend negotiations ultimately, it’s already clear that he won’t get anything like all of the changes he originally asked for. As for the public, to the extent that Labor is interested in voters on the part of Labor, they will leave the impression that the party is still more obsessed with introspective, incomprehensible, factional and obscure bickering than it is interested in talking about. . for the country.

That’s what this conference needs most: trying to forge some kind of engagement with Britain that Labor aspires to rule again someday. The task is well described by a former Labor minister who said: “Keir needs to develop a picture of what a Labor government would do. He has to say some interesting things. He must convey a vision. Unconvinced that he has yet to meet one of these critical challenges, the veteran remarks: “Being Mr. Solid will not be enough to do it with the country. “

The most common criticism of it is the most unfair. It’s not true that he doesn’t really believe in anything. I know this because, unlike most people, I have read the various speeches he gave during his tenure as leader. Their general theme is that the pandemic has brought to light the fragilities and inequalities of British society while demonstrating that there is a spirit of solidarity that can be harnessed to build a better country than is possible under the Conservatives led by selfish individualism. This argument in favor of social democracy can be found in his 35-page brochure for the Fabian Society. If the reader is supposed to take a sentence with them, it is the “contributing company”. Sir Keir wants it to be the idea of ​​signing that gives his leaders the definition he previously lacked. I have seen worse attempts to give a clear expression to a political creed, and I have heard much more pungent ones. You are unlikely to find conversations in pubs and supermarket queues buzzing with discussions about the contributing company. I detect the disappointment in his entourage that the essay landed in the media not with the big splash they hoped for, but a lackluster plop.

This goes to the heart of his real communication problem. He has things to say, but hasn’t found a way to arouse the audience’s appetite to hear them. A pamphlet that will never be read by the vast majority of voters is certainly not going to do it.

The conference offers Sir Keir a great opportunity to connect with the public, restore confidence within his party and reset perceptions of his leadership in a more positive setting. This is his leader’s speech on Wednesday. According to plausible accounts, Sir Keir and his entourage have only been working on the speech for many weeks. “All of the effort over the past three months has been devoted to the speech,” says someone in an extremely good position to know. “That’s why not much else happened.”

There will be something new about it. Due to the pandemic, this will be his first live speech to a conference audience filled with living, breathing members, likely cheering and possibly heckling party members. There is a reasonable chance that the speech will top the news because the BBC and other broadcasters feel compelled to pay close attention to these milestones. In talking to the members of the shadow cabinet, I find that there is general agreement that a lot depends on the success of this speech. There is intense pressure on Sir Keir to deliver an impressive performance with eye-catching content that has a big impact and touches audiences in ways that he hasn’t managed to do before.

The danger for him is that the weight of waiting has become much too heavy for a single speech to bear. A senior Labor official comments: “All this talk about ‘he has to give the speech of his life‘. This places an expectation on the performative side of politics and this is not Keir’s forte.

The Labor leader may have several commendable qualities, but being a JFK class speaker is not one of them. “People are expecting too much for this one conference speech,” said a former Labor minister. “One speech cannot transform the country’s point of view on him or on our party. It is therefore set up to fail.

Bill Clinton, the two-term US president, knew a little about the arts of political communication. He once said, “Everyone has a story to tell, but some people have a hard time getting it out. “

Sir Keir has a story to tell. The least his conference speech has to show is that he is overcoming his struggle to get him out.

Andrew Rawnsley is the chief political commentator of The Observer

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