Starmer pivots as foreign crisis overshadows pitch to lead UK
Keir Starmer was counting on using his Labour Party’s annual gathering to seal the deal with British business and raise his profile among an uncertain electorate. The opposition leader’s team has been forced to adapt with an international crisis dominating the headlines.
Party activists, business executives and union leaders who arrived in Liverpool, northwest England on Sunday, found global attention had turned to the surprise attack on Israel by the militant group, Hamas, and the prospect of a prolonged war ahead.
Starmer was asked for his response during the traditional leader’s BBC interview hours before the conference began on Sunday. “An appalling attack on Israel,” he called it. “A terrorist attack, for which there is no justification.”
Three people familiar with the matter said the leadership is sanguine about attention being diverted away from the conference.
It would be relatively insignificant but for Starmer’s left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, who shared platforms with Hamas supporters before he became leader, and late on Sunday said the only solution is to “end the occupation” of Palestinian territories.
The two answers underscored how much Labour has changed under Starmer, who expelled Corbyn from the parliamentary party months after he took over in 2020.
Yet the fact that Corbyn could still make headlines illustrated why despite Labour leading Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives by around 20 points in opinion polls ahead of the general election expected next year, there is still some nervousness this week. Part of that reflects the scale of the electoral challenge to recover from Corbyn’s 2019 defeat. Starmer needs another 123 seats for an outright majority — the biggest turnaround since 1945.
“It’s very easy for the Conservatives to lose the election, it’s a lot harder for Labour to win,” James Blagden, head of politics and polling at Tory think tank Onward, told a panel at the conference.
Polls show many voters who opted for Boris Johnson’s Tories four years ago remain undecided. A word cloud from focus groups conducted by research group More in Common for the BBC found that “nothing” and “don’t know” were among the most popular terms associated with Starmer. That may be preferable to Sunak’s “rich” and “money” ahead of the Tory conference last week, but it still shows why Labour see this week as so critical.
“I’ve had a lot worse thrown at me,” Starmer said. “We come here to this, the last conference before a general election, to set out our positive case.”
Starmer’s team wants to use the event to emphasise the change at the top. On Monday, he and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves will address what Labour called the “largest ever” business gathering at its conference. The goal is to show Labour as the “undisputed party of business,” it said, with executives from Microsoft, Ikea and energy company Octopus expected to attend.
In her speech to conference, Reeves will also pledge to speed up the building of infrastructure for energy, transport and technology, and fast-track the planning process for battery factories and laboratories if Labour wins power.
“I think everyone in London who wears a tie has had breakfast with Rachel Reeves.” Alex Baldock, chief executive officer of electronics retailer Currys Plc, told the BBC when asked about Labour’s outreach to business on Sunday.
Meanwhile Labour officials are trying to strike a balance between presenting the party as a government-in-waiting, and avoiding the complacency that comes with such a large poll lead.
“We believe it’s a possibility but it’s a possibility that we still need to earn and earn the hard way,” shadow science secretary Peter Kyle told Bloomberg. On the main stage, Labour’s general secretary David Evans urged members to remember the words of Shimon Peres, the late former prime minister of Israel: “Opinion polls are like perfume — nice to smell, dangerous to swallow.
Starmer’s priority is to present himself as a change candidate, party officials said, on economic growth, reforming the National Health Service and housebuilding. It’s ground Sunak tried to claim for himself last week as he tried to distance himself from the 13-year legacy of the Tories in government.
The opposition leader calls himself a “pragmatist” and his priority is real reform of Britain’s ailing public services, but in a carefully managed way that doesn’t scare away investors or even centrist voters who may be persuaded to vote Conservative.
Some in Labour fear Starmer is being too cautious. Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite trade union — a major donor to Labour — told Sky News the party had been “too timid” and risked “limping into Number 10.”
But others argue Starmer is getting the tone right. Christina McAnea, head of the Unison union, told Times Radio she welcomed Starmer’s “laser focus on trying to win the next election.”
For many in the party, though, the biggest thing Starmer has done is drawn a line under the Corbyn era. He’s brought Labour “across the line from being weird to being normal again,” Peter Mandelson, a Cabinet minister under Labour’s longest-serving premier Tony Blair, told Sky News.