Starmer reimagines Blair and Brexit in bid to win over the North East

At the Labour party conference Kier Starmer said "this is a Labour moment." Credit: PA

With the economic turmoil unfolding elsewhere, the Labour conference this week was a pretty sedate affair, in a way that will have pleased the party's leadership.

There was little to match last year's drama, when Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald suddenly quit the shadow cabinet in a row over minimum wage policy.

I didn't hear Sir Keir Starmer recalling that incident, but he was happy to look backwards in other ways.

He pitched himself as the 'heir to Blair'.

He didn't use that phrase, once attributed to David Cameron, but the echoes of the former Sedgefield MP were clear enough.

An old quote about Labour being “the political wing of the British people” was trailed to the media in advance and duly delivered by Starmer in his speech.

He talked about being "the party of the centre-ground", referred several times to them taking power in 1997, and claimed that, again, "this is a Labour moment."

Blair remains a divisive figure, and inviting such direct comparisons is something Starmer would not have been confident to do in his early days as leader.

It demonstrates how comprehensively the left of the party has been sidelined that there has been little backlash.

Local activists I spoke to afterwards said they understood the link to Labour's most recent general election-winner.

Indeed the current party leader's point was perhaps best summed up by 16-year-old Hassan Ameen from Newcastle.

Of Starmer, he told me: "His mission - to just win - that is the primary goal of Labour."

To get into government, he will need to reclaim lost territory in the North East.

The sense that Labour were trying to block Brexit was a big factor behind those losses, and Starmer looked back to that too.

He said: "I want to speak directly to the people who left Labour on this issue. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you’ve been let down."

He pledged: "Labour will make Brexit work", and linked it to how they "will spread power and opportunity to all our communities."

He and front bench colleagues didn't dig down much further into what is now mostly known as 'levelling up'.

Though, with the pledge to create a new state-owned energy generation company, they did further spell out the party position that creating new jobs in renewable power in places like the North East can be a key part of tackling regional inequalities.

Starmer described it as: “Fair growth - powered by clean, British energy - everywhere in the country.”

Henri Murison, chief executive of business and civic leadership group the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (chaired by former Conservative hancellor George Osborne) replied to me on social media: “I agree with Keir Starmer”, while stressing nuclear power should play a significant role.

Hartlepool, where the nuclear power station is on its last legs, is the most recent 'Red Wall' seat to slip from Labour's grasp.

My colleague Kris Jepson found some people in the town happy to give Starmer a fair hearing, and others who'd already had enough of him.

There was a very confident mood at conference, but the candidate Labour have selected for Hartlepool at the next election insisted he isn't getting ahead of himself.

Jonathan Brash told me: "We cannot, in any way shape or form, be complacent about where we are. I think anyone who's predicting that the 'Red Wall' will just come back to Labour naturally is completely wrong. We'll win back 'Red Wall' seats like Hartlepool when we start talking about the things that local people care about."

Labour could not find the time for Starmer to do regional interviews with us in Liverpool.

We are due to speak to the new Prime Minister Liz Truss in Birmingham in a few days' time. 

With her government's economic plans coming under attack from just about every angle, she must be expecting a turbulent Tory party conference ahead.

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