Ivor Gaber asks if Keir Starmer’s speech to the Labour conference last week was the first tentative step in the party’s revival or just a reminder of how much it still has to change

This hadn’t always been an easy conference, Keir Starmer told the Labour conference meeting at the Brighton Centre. It was his first live speech as leader to his party and as it was with the conference, so it was with the speech – not always easy.

His hour-and-a-half speech was a substantial statement of his background, his beliefs and his vision of what a Starmer Labour government would look like. On one level it was a success, these messages effectively delivered. But he also had to face heckling from activists, angered by his refusal to back their demands for a minimum wage of £15 an hour.

For the most part Starmer, unfazed, ploughed on, only hitting back at the hecklers to say, “Slogans or changing lives?” to loud applause from the overwhelming majority in the hall.

One of his primary aims was to counter accusations that voters didn’t know him. To that effect he devoted the early part of his speech to talking about his background. He spoke about his father, a toolmaker, and he kept referring back to him when he insisted on the value of work and how he wanted to “re-tool” Britain.

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But when he came to talking about his mother an emotional side of the Labour leader came to the fore. He told the conference that she was an NHS nurse but one who suffered from a long-term debilitating illness that meant she spent as much time as a patient as a carer. He spoke movingly about how once he had raced to tell her of an award he had won as a lawyer, only to find her surrounded by four nurses in the process of keeping her alive.

There was some knockabout as well, but not much. He mocked the Prime Minister’s levelling-up pledge – “Level up? You can’t even fill up” – and he described Boris Johnson as a trickster with no long-term plan for the country.

But Starmer’s key message to the country at large, if not to the hall, was that Labour had changed, no longer talking to itself but talking to the voters – particularly those former Labour supporters who had voted Conservative at the last election.

He put great emphasis on how Labour valued work, skills, and enterprise. He said that under his government fighting crime and fighting for the victims of crime would be a priority and he wanted the message to be heard that Labour was a patriotic party and a party of the Union.

And he couldn’t resist a dig at the Scottish Nationalists by saying how sorry he felt for the people of Scotland having to live under two bad governments, contrasting their lot with what he claimed were the successes of the Welsh Government, led by Labour’s Mark Drakeford.

But the big themes were that Labour would shift the NHS from its current focus as a service based on treatment to one focused on prevention. He stressed Labour’s commitment to security and defence, defining Labour as a patriotic party. But the policy that received the biggest cheers from the hall came when he restated his party’s commitment to its Green New Deal – its plans for tackling the climate crisis whilst still growing the economy by creating new “green” jobs.

So will it work? Will his speech be seen to have shifted perceptions of Labour as a party not fit to govern to one that it is now a party ready for office?

On one level possibly not – the heckles from the hall were a vivid and uncomfortable reminder this is still a divided party, in which many of its activists appear to have values and priorities very different from the people whose votes they need to recapture.

However, that might be a short term view. In the longer term this speech will have introduced Starmer to the British public and have made it clear that under him the party would be offering a set of mainstream, some would say middle-of-the-road, policies very unlike its offering at the 2019 election. And he unashamedly told the conference that he saw Tony Blair’s New Labour governments as the basis of his ambitions for Labour.

Tony Blair was the most successful Labour leader in recent history. His conference speeches were greeted with acclaim by party conferences in the past. Starmer’s speech didn’t quite reach those levels but, for those of us in the hall, it was clear that despite the heckles the majority of the members were most definitely with him.

So although he might not yet be bestriding the party and the country Blair-style, this was a start, and with the possibility that we might be facing a new “winter of discontent” as problems including fuel shortages, energy price hikes and shortages in shops loom, we might well be looking back at this speech saying this was where Labour’s revival began.

Ivor Gaber is professor of political journalism at the University of Sussex