With every week that passes, the Labour Party – or at least its leadership – is ever more unrecognisable from the dim, distant and unlamented days of Jeremy Corbyn. This week we saw Labour’s version of a virtual party conference, and save for a few crowd-pleasing references to Labour’s history, the rest of Keir Starmer’s speech could have come from an entirely different political tradition than those of his predecessor in recent conferences.
Gone were the long passages on human rights in the Middle East, or on nationalisation, and instead we had strong themes of family, security and the forces. Of these, it was the importance of family that Keir Starmer really wanted to focus on, so much so that he managed to mention it eight times in a relatively short speech.
The other big theme, which cast another contrast to the Corbyn years, was on his simple focus on turning Labour into a winning machine. In perhaps the most telling passage of all he told his party that it needed to be more honest with itself, continuing that “When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to. You don’t look at the electorate and ask them: ‘What were you thinking?’ You look at yourself and ask: ‘What were we doing? … The Tories have had as many election winners in five years as we’ve had in 75. It’s a betrayal of what we believe in to let this go on. It’s time to get serious about winning.”
Watching the Starmer leadership in recent weeks, it really is the ruthless focus on winning that is its hallmark – far more than any ideological bent or direction. On Wednesday, the Commons voted on the Overseas Operations Bill, controversial within the party with some arguing it allowed British forces to get away with offences including torture when on active duty. But Starmer was not going to fall into the Tory trap of opposing the legislation and appearing unpatriotic, so he ordered his MPs to abstain. When 17 MPs rebelled against that instruction – including, by the way, Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Rebecca Long-Bailey – he promptly sacked those that had jobs in his Shadow Ministerial team.
The key message of Labour’s week was that the party is under new leadership. So it is. And as this week has shown very very clearly, this leader really is quite different to the last chap.