Patriotism was at the heart of Keir Starmer’s first speech of 2022 as the Labour leader tried to build on his party’s recent gains in the opinion polls.
In a keynote address in Birmingham that The Times said emphasised “his love for Queen and country”, Starmer unveiled a new contract with the electorate forged around “security, prosperity and respect”.
The leader of the opposition pointed to “all that the British have to be proud of”, including “the rule of law”, “Her Majesty the Queen” and “universal public services”. Labour was “not a nationalist party, but it is a national party” that wants to “correct” flaws such as rising living costs, stagnant wages and crime “precisely because we are patriotic”, he said.
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Pledging to deliver “straight leadership”, Starmer accused Boris Johnson of treating politics like “a branch of the entertainment industry”, while positioning Labour as a party in “the serious business of getting things done”.
Starmer sought to “press home the advantage” in his first speech of the year, said The Times, as polling showed Labour entered 2022 six points ahead of the Conservatives.
He currently has the “biggest lead over Johnson since he became leader of the opposition”, according to YouGov polling for paper. Asked who would make the best PM, 34% of voters said Starmer, while 22% replied Boris Johnson in the most recent poll, on 20 December.
“Johnson’s personal approval ratings are now similar to those faced by Theresa May in the week before she was forced to resign,” the paper added.
In a Deltapoll survey of 57 key “red wall” constituencies in traditional Labour heartlands seen “as crucial to winning back the keys to Downing Street,” the party is also ahead by 16 points, according to The Guardian.
Can Starmer capitalise?
In the year’s “political curtain-raiser” Starmer aimed to “capitalise on a bumpy few months for the prime minister and emphasise how he sees himself as very different”, said the BBC’s political correspondent Chris Mason.
“It was an attempt to make a virtue out of being serious, even boring, in comparison to Johnson” and was reminiscent of a 15-year-old campaign slogan from former Labour leader Gordon Brown: “Not flash, just Gordon.”
In recent years, Labour has “rarely dared” to position itself as a party that represents the people against the establishment, despite it being one of the “most effective moves in British politics”, said Andy Beckett in The Guardian in late December.
“So the fact that this month Starmer has started talking about ‘the national interest’ and ‘‘the British people’, and trying to associate his party with them, feels significant.
“It suggests that after more than 18 months of cautious and defensive leadership – much of it taken up with sidelining colleagues and policies supposedly too radical for the public – Starmer finally believes that Labour can speak for the nation without being ridiculed.”
Labour’s present position “would see it win back perhaps all of its lost Red Wall seats”, said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, in The Spectator.
But “it is still insufficient to guarantee a Commons majority”, meaning “it would make [Labour] the largest party but one unlikely to be able to govern on its own.
“If all this takes some of the gilt off the gingerbread for Starmer, even more sobering is the memory of how recently serious question marks hovered over his leadership,” Fielding continued. But the current lead the Labour leader enjoys in the polls could well be his chance to take the political reins.
“As Boris Johnson will attest, if it looks like you are an election winner you can almost get away with anything.”
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