Sir Keir Starmer is under pressure to deliver the performance of his life | Andrew Rawnsley

That legendary philosopher of time Joe Strummer once said: “The future is unwritten.” This quote from The Clash frontman makes a surprise appearance on page 21 of the essay published in the name of Sir Keir Starmer in which he expends 13,000 words trying to answer the criticism that he doesn’t stand for anything because he doesn’t believe in anything.

I think I understand why that Strummerism appeals to Sir Keir. One of the sharpest of myriad challenges facing the Labour leader is that a lot of people think his future is already written – and not in a good way. Eighteen months into the job, many in his own party and outside it are concluding that he is doomed to take Labour to another defeat at the next election. Starting with a shrivelled base of just 202 Labour MPs, his task never looked easy, but for a while there were some wisps of hope that he was climbing the mountain. Even if he did not win, there seemed a decent possibility that he could create the conditions for a dramatic improvement to Labour’s position. Those hopes have been evaporating in recent months. The loss of the Hartlepool byelection was followed by a near-death experience in Batley and Spen. After a promising start to his leadership, his approval ratings sagged, then dived and have now bottomed out in deeply negative territory.

That fuels the widely held impression that the Labour leader is struggling. His excuse is that Covid constrained the topics he could talk about and prevented campaigning. For sure, the pandemic denied him opportunities to try to connect with voters, but that alibi has now expired.

You can’t tread water as an opposition leader. Momentum is essential. If you aren’t making visible progress, then you are going backwards. The more that people write him off as yet another Labour leader who can’t win, the harder it is for him to impose his authority and ideas on his party.

“He’s lost the left,” says one Labour MP. True, but then he never really had them in the first place. The continuity Corbynites were always going to decry him as an empty haircut in a centrist suit who lacks a radical soul. Sir Keir is also taxing the patience of people at the other end of the party. They are frustrated that he hasn’t drawn a more vivid line under the catastrophic experiment with Corbynism. They complain that he lacks the flair and the urgency to make the transformation necessary to turn Labour into a party that the country might consider trusting with power again. “It’s over for Keir,” says one blunt New Labour grandee who voted for him to become leader. “It’s not a little bit over. It’s completely over. It’s clear that he has no strategy for the party or the country. What we’re looking at now is definite defeat at the next election.”

That is a view from the extreme end of the fatalistic spectrum. It is more widely true that the Labour conference in Brighton swirls with anxiety. Friends as much as foes talk of this being a “make or break” week for the leader. At minimum, he has to emerge from the conference looking stronger than he does going into it.

As I write, there’s a significant risk that he could end up not with his authority enhanced, but further diminished. Most Labour MPs assumed that his plan for this conference was to use it as a platform for communicating to the public. So there’s much bafflement that Sir Keir was persuaded to turn it into an arena for internal conflict by triggering an unexpected battle over Labour’s constitutional rules. Having picked this fight without first making sure that he could win it, he lost the opening round when the scale of the opposition to his proposals forced him to abandon putting them to a vote of the party’s national executive committee. Whatever eventually emerges from negotiations over the weekend, it is already clear he won’t get anything like all the changes that he originally pressed for. As for the public, in so much as Labour scratching around in its own navel is of any interest to voters, it will leave the impression that the party is still more obsessed with introspective, incomprehensible, factional and arcane wrangles than it is interested in talking to the country.

That’s what this conference most needs to be about: trying to forge some kind of engagement with the Britain that Labour aspires to govern again one day. The task is well described by one former Labour cabinet minister who says: “Keir has to develop a picture of what a Labour government would do. He’s got to say interesting things. He’s got to convey a vision.” Unconvinced that he has yet to meet any of these critical challenges, this veteran remarks: “Being Mr Solid isn’t going to be enough to do it with the country.”

The most common criticism of him is the most unfair. It is not true that he doesn’t really believe in anything. I know this because, unlike most people, I have read the various speeches he has made during his time as leader. Their overarching theme is that the pandemic has illuminated the frailties and inequalities in British society while also demonstrating that there is a spirit of solidarity that can be harnessed to build a better country than is possible under Tories animated by selfish individualism. This argument for social democracy threads through his 35-page pamphlet for the Fabian Society. If the reader is supposed to take one phrase away with them, it is the “contribution society”. Sir Keir wants this to be the signature idea that gives his leadership the definition it has previously lacked. I’ve seen worse attempts to give crisp expression to a political credo and I’ve heard much zingier ones. It is unlikely that you will find conversations in pubs and supermarket checkout queues buzzing with discussion of the contribution society. I detect disappointment in his circle that the essay landed in the media not with the big splash they hoped for, but a dull plop.

That goes to the heart of his real communications problem. He has got things to say, but hasn’t found a way to engender a public 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 presents Sir Keir with one big opportunity to make a connection with the public, restore confidence within his party and reset perceptions of his leadership in a more positive frame. That is his leader’s speech on Wednesday. On plausible accounts, Sir Keir and his inner circle have been working on little else other than the speech for many weeks. “All the effort over the past three months has gone into the speech,” says someone extremely well placed to know. “That’s why not much else has been happening.”

There will be some novelty about it. Because of the pandemic, this will be the first speech he has delivered live to a conference audience packed with living, breathing, probably applauding and possibly heckling party members. There is a reasonable chance of the speech topping the TV news because the BBC and other broadcasters feel an obligation to give substantial attention to these setpiece occasions. Talking to members of the shadow cabinet, I find general agreement that much depends on the success of this speech. There is intense pressure on Sir Keir to deliver an impressive performance with attention-grabbing content that makes a large impact and cuts through to the public in a way he has not managed to do before.

The danger for him is that the weight of expectation has become much too heavy for a single speech to bear. One senior Labour figure comments: “All this talk about ‘he needs to give the speech of his life’. That places an expectation on the performative side of politics and that isn’t Keir’s forte.”

The Labour leader may have several commendable qualities, but being an orator of the class of JFK is not one of them. “People are holding out too much for this one conference speech,” says a former Labour cabinet minister. “One speech can’t transform the country’s view of him or our party. So he’s being set up to fail.”

Bill Clinton, the two-term US president, knew something about the arts of political communication. He once remarked: “Everyone’s got a story to tell, but some people struggle to get it out.”

Sir Keir has got a story to tell. The least his conference speech needs to demonstrate is that he is overcoming his struggle to get it out.

Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer


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