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From Airbus to zeugma: decoding Starmer’s big speech

From Airbus to zeugma: decoding Starmer’s big speech

The Labour leader delivered his conference speech yesterday. It wasn’t perfect, but we did learn something about the man and his politics…

Sir Keir Starmer’s first speech as leader to a proper, in-person Labour conference needed, some had been saying, to be the speech of his life. That, it was not – though he spent what seemed like a lot of his life on it. An hour and a half is a long time for even an enthusiast to listen with attention to a political speech; just as 14,000-odd words was too long a pamphlet to expect even a political nerd to read with attention. 

That’s true even if you’re a virtuosic orator. Sir Keir is not. His delivery is, for the most part, awkward. He doesn’t have the gift of making what he says sound as if it’s being felt and extemporised rather than learned and read; and when he lurchingly turned up the volume for emphasis you didn’t hear a man fired with passion so much as imagine one dutifully responding to a run of all-caps on his autocue. “THAT IS WHY UNDER ME THE FIGHT AGAINST CRIME WILL ALWAYS BE A LABOUR ISSUE! A LABOUR ISSUE! [Pause for applause.]”

The heckling from Continuity Corbynistas was helpful to him. When you put down a heckler – even if you’ve prepared a line, as Sir Keir doubtless will have – your flow is broken. You’re clearly not reading from a script. When he observed wryly that Wednesday lunchtime was when he usually finds himself being heckled by the Tories at PMQs – “it doesn’t bother me then and it won’t bother me now” – he sounded relaxed and spontaneous. 

A second bout of heckling seemed, momentarily, to throw him, but he came back with the rhetorical question: “Shouting slogans, or changing lives, conference?” and reaped enough applause to drown the heckle.

This was an effective piece of political theatre. It will have given the impression to the wider voting public (in fact, arguably, the section of the audience that matters most) that not only does the hard left dislike him, but that in opposing them he has his party squarely behind him. 

That was reinforced when probably the most sustained and spontaneous applause in the speech greeted the passage in which, without uttering the dread word “Blair”, he enumerated the achievements of the last Labour government. A similar dynamic was in play when, rather gutsily, he referred directly to the humiliation of the 2019 result without being bottled off stage: “the more we expose the inadequacy of this government the more it presses the question back on us. If they are so bad, what does it say about us? Because after all in 2019 we lost to them, and we lost badly.”

He sounded authentically passionate in what followed, which was at once a covert rebuke to the ideological purity brigade in his own ranks and a feeling expression of his electoral hopes: 

Imagine waking up the morning after the next election in the knowledge that you could start to write the next chapter in our nation’s history, bending it towards the values that bring us, year after year to this conference hall to seek a better way.

Proud in the knowledge that you were part of it.

I have loved my first full conference as leader but I don’t want to go through the same routine every year.

In a few short years from now I want to be here with you talking about the difference we are making, the problems we are fixing as a Labour government.

That is what this party is for. That’s the object of the exercise.

If there’s one line to take away from the speech, it’s that one. Here are some other passages that stood out:

Me, me, me

The ethos appeal – how a speaker presents him or herself – is the foundation stone of rhetoric. It’s the who-is-this-schmuck-and-why-should-we-listen-to-him bit. Sir Keir spent at least half an hour on it. This speech, in large part, was about establishing himself as a leader. For the proximate audience, that meant digging beneath the successful-barrister-and-knight-of-the-realm image to find a son of the soil. So we got “first person in my family to go to university”, allusions to his father’s humble manual profession and the hardship of his mother’s illness, and the repeated insistence that he was not a “career politician”. 

So, when I hear that this country is creating so many low-paid jobs and when I tell you that good work and fair growth will be the priority for a Labour government, I haven’t learnt this in some political seminar.

I learnt it round the kitchen table. I learnt it at home, from my dad. How pride derives from work. How work is the bedrock of a good economy. And how a good economy is an essential partner of a good society.

That’s why I am so proud to lead a party whose name is Labour. Don’t forget it. Labour. The party of working people.

Ethos wants to be boastful-but-humble. Sir Keir didn’t quite manage the perfect balance. Declaring: “I say these simple but powerful words” is poor expectation management; it’s for others to judge whether your words are powerful. In this case the words were: “we will never under my leadership go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government”, which didn’t exactly cause plaster dust to descend from the cornicing in the hall. 

Likewise, when he talked about wanting to tell people how “my passions were born,” or said “every day as a lawyer, if you are a young radical as I was, you think of yourself as working for justice”, he will have lost the more cynical members of the audience. Every day? He told a story about how his office advised him not to meet the parents of a young woman murdered by an abusive ex and reports that he told them: “If I haven’t got time to see the parents of a young woman who has just been murdered, then what am I doing in this job?” These are stories which too nakedly cast him as the maverick idealist battling against timid conformity, bureaucracy and cynicism, and they made him sound more infatuated with himself than was politic. 

Not the other guys

Sir Keir was trying to differentiate himself from the Tories for the benefit of his own party; and from a faction within his own party for the benefit of the wider world. The heckling (mostly) did the latter part for him. But, as well as the odd childish insult, he strove at various points to draw a firm line between himself and the Conservatives by weaponising their slogans against them.

So “level up” got repeated references – not only in the slightly botched laugh-line about levelling up at the petrol station, but more directly. “If you can’t level up our children, you’re not serious about levelling up at all.” And later: “And, after all that, the Tories expect us to believe that levelling up is more than a slogan. Well, let me offer the Conservative party a lesson in levelling up.”

He even tweaked the prime minister’s love of Latin: 

They want to reintroduce Latin in state schools. So let me put this crisis in the only language that Boris Johnson will understand. Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Finally, it is time to act…

Probably the most effective attack on the prime minister, though, was in the scalding remark that “I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man. I think he is a trivial man.”

Forms of address

Rhetorically, Sir Keir dug in the toolkit for the standard equipment of this sort of speech. He used anaphora incessantly, repeating words at the beginning of successive sentences; he grouped things into euphonious triplets; he uttered grand-sounding verbless sentences; he yoked runs of phrases with zeugma; he asked rhetorical questions.

But he was particularly attentive to the figure known as apostrophe – where you change the addressee of a speech for dramatic effect. This was happening covertly – with coded snipes at the left of the party – but also at the level of grammar. “Well, prime minister, either get a grip or get out of the way and let us clear up this mess”; “To our devoted activists and loyal voters I want to say loud and clear…”; “While I was doing that, what were you doing, Mr Johnson?”

And when the time came he busted out the first-person plural: 

Well, here in this conference hall we are patriots. When we discuss the fine young men and women who represent all our nations we don’t boo. We get to our feet and cheer.

 Which is, of course, an invitation to those present to get to their feet and cheer. 

A Third Way

There was a note of feeling commitment in Sir Keir’s voice when – for the benefit of those outside as well as inside the hall – he made clear that he was to be on the right of his party on economics but to the left of the Tories. He talked about how he wanted to see “small businesses” turn into “inventive big businesses”, used the term “wealth-creators” without a hint of cynicism, and wheeled out his all-caps voice for the crescendo in this bit:

Under Labour’s Buy, Make, Sell in Britain programme there will be more local procurement.

The towns that were the crucibles of the original industrial revolution need to be revived in the next.

The coal and cotton towns of Lancashire, the wool towns of Yorkshire, the great maritime and fishing economies of our seaports. These places made Britain the envy of the world.

We cannot make the nation we want without them.

The lesson is that a secure well-paid workforce of skilled people in high-class work protected by good trade unions is not separate from good business.

It’s the definition of good business. And good business and good government are partners.

Here’s the Buy British patriotism he hopes will outflank the Tories; here’s the friendly-to-business attitude he hopes will reassure the markets (“public-private partnership”); and here’s also an attempt to show that both of these things are rooted in the Labour of trade union representation and Northern mill towns. 

White Heat

Sir Keir is infatuated with technical innovation, and wants us to know it.

Every time I enter a high-tech factory, I wonder what my dad would make of it.

Not so long ago we shaped metal by drilling it, milling it and turning it. I remember my dad working with a spark eroder submerging metal in liquid and using an electrical charge to shape it.

We thought it was revolutionary at the time.

But at Airbus recently, where they are developing the world’s first hydrogen wing, I saw them working with 3D engineering, literally shaping components by bringing together particles and matter in a way unimaginable in the factory my dad used to work in.

I saw young apprentices, in a fully unionised factory proud of the skilled work they were doing. Their pride came from knowing they were at the heart of a revolution, building the next generation of hydrogen and battery planes.

Again, there’s some delicate needle-threading going on there: a through-line from the industrial past to the magic of new technology, mediated by “my dad” and with Old Labour touchstone references to apprentices and unionisation carefully included. You can have hi-tech without globalised neoliberalism, he wants to assure us.

Four key things

In his pamphlet for the Fabian Society, Sir Keir centred his argument on two points: security and opportunity (or their opposites “insecurity” and “inequality of opportunity”). He added two more for this speech, which he personalised and incorporated into his the-things-that-made-me-the-man-I-am-today schtick as “two rocks in my life”. From his father, he said, he learned the “dignity of work”, and from his mother the “nobility of care”.

In his peroration he set all these four out together – and attempted to cast four abstract nouns as the tangible implements with which a horny-handed Labour leader might embark on an honest day’s toil.   

Work. Care. Equality. Security.

I think of these values as British values. I think of them as the values that take you right to the heart of the British public. That is where this party must always be.

And I think of these values as my heirloom. The word loom, from which that idea comes, is another word for tool.

Work. Care. Equality. Security.

These are the tools of my trade. And with them I will go to work.

Sam Leith is the literary editor of the Spectator. His books include You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Trump and Beyond… and Our Times in Rhymes: Being a Prosodical Chronicle of Our Damnable Age, illustrated by our very own Edith.

Photograph by Leon Neal/Getty Images