Unlike Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer is a serious politician for serious times – Ayesha Hazarika

Keir Starmer can finally relax. But not too much.

Former Labour aide Ayesha Hazarika is still traumatised by the aftermath of a speech by ex-party leader Ed Miliband (Picture: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)
Former Labour aide Ayesha Hazarika is still traumatised by the aftermath of a speech by ex-party leader Ed Miliband (Picture: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)

The Labour leader’s big gamble to take on his party paid off and he can look people in the eye and say, “last year I promised we were under new management and this year I proved it”.

Getting the message out that he is absolutely not Jeremy Corbyn and that he had defeated the party’s hard-left was critical. Starmer has got Labour back on the pitch. But there’s a long way to go.

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There is lots of chat about how to win back the Red Wall, which is vital, but there’s this other place called Scotland which is pretty important too.

Professor John Curtice spoke at fascinating fringe event at Brighton about proportional representation, spelling out just how tough a job Starmer has on his hands, especially in Scotland where independence remains a huge issue for many former Labour voters.

You can see why PR or some kind of progressive alliance is becoming increasingly popular amongst Labour members because it looks so hard for the party to ever win under first-past-the-post. But, for now at least, these are the terms on which elections are fought.

It’s not all bad news. His debut conference was in effect his debut as leader of the opposition, and it went well.

The morning after a leader’s speech can be a brutal. I’m still traumatised by the morning broadcast round following Ed Miliband’s “predators and producers” speech about ending “fast buck” capitalism (in his defence, it was a concept ahead of its time).

But on Thursday, Starmer gave an assured and confident interview on the Today programme where he remained calm and never got panicky. This was in contrast to his Andrew Marr interview last weekend when he became trapped in a cervical-shaped culture war cul de sac.

(Note to male interviewers: please stop banging on about cervixes when you couldn’t even find one on a woman.)

One of the strongest parts of Starmer's Today progamme interview and of his speech was on his time as director of public prosecutions, particularly when talking about what he would do to tackle violence against women.

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As the country reels over the sickening details of the murder of Sarah Everard and the pain of her parents, tackling the epidemic of violence against women has got to be at the heart of Labour’s crime agenda. And there is no better placed political leader than Starmer with his hinterland as a prosecutor.

Yes, Starmer has told the country about his family and how that shaped his politics. That’s a necessary thing for a Labour leader to do. But Starmer has a unique selling point with his professional background, and he needs to use it more. His vow to “clean up British politics” is a powerful one with substance and to it.

Starmer can never out-jolly Boris Johnson. He can’t match the Prime Minister’s breezy bonhomie. He’s never going to host Have I Got News For You. His persona doesn’t lend itself easily to the funnies. But we aren’t exactly on the Good Ship Lollipop.

Labour must be optimistic about the country, but there are undeniable clouds gathering – from the looming cost of living crisis to the chaos of post-Brexit labour shortages to the deep fear and rage that women feel about their safety. His best shot lies in arguing these are serious times for serious people. Along with climate change he has got to make fighting crime a key priority and use his experience to show he can do it.

Another theme that he had previously tested but which was turbo-charged at conference by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves was that Labour is pro-business. This doesn’t mean Labour is not on the side of workers, but it does mean that a partnership approach is on the table. I attended a number of business events and dinners and while there is still much mistrust of Labour on the economy, there was excoriating frustration and vocal ire at the government about the fallout from Brexit and the lack of planning. The Prime Minister’s “f*** business” comments still loom large and were cited by many.

There is a genuine respect for Rachel Reeves and an interest in her. Her speech announcing £28bn to make the economy greener plus her vows on fiscal restraint and valuing taxpayers’ money were welcomed by small, medium and large business trade associations.

Labour has finally levelled up with its new shadow treasury team. Rishi Sunak was a top banker. Reeves was a Bank of England economist. Many business leaders feel there is a fierce and fascinating fight to be had between these two. But she can’t do it on her own. Starmer must do some heavy lifting with business leaders who are curious about him and if nothing else, have some professional respect for the high office he held before becoming Labour leader.

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Labour has few advantages right now. Starmer’s previous life as a tough, highly successful, serious public servant who went after the bad guys may just be one of them.

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