BRIGHTON, England (AP) — The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party took aim Wednesday at a Conservative government that has presided over empty gas pumps and one of Europe’s worst coronavirus death tolls — but still holds a lead over Labour in most opinion polls.
That sums up the dilemma for Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has struggled to break through to a largely indifferent public despite the many problems besetting Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration.
Starmer sought to change that with a speech Wednesday at the party’s annual conference, arguing that Labour is “back in business” after a decade of election disappointments. He argued that his personal story — a working-class lad who went to law school and became a public prosecutor — made him a better leader than posh, blustering Johnson, whom he dismissed as “a trickster who has performed his one trick.”
“I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man,” Starmer said. “I think he is a trivial man. I think he’s a showman with nothing left to show.”
Labour has been out of office since 2010, a decade that has brought the country three Conservative prime ministers — David Cameron, Theresa May and Johnson.
Johnson’s Conservatives won a thumping 80-seat majority in Parliament in December 2019 by winning over voters in post-industrial northern England towns that had voted Labour for decades but feel neglected by successive governments.
Starmer wants to win them back. In his speech, he tackled many voters’ biggest concern about Labour — that the social democratic party will hike taxes and hobble the economy.
“Too often in the history of this party, our dream of the good society falls foul of the belief that we will not run a strong economy,” he said. “But you don’t get one without the other.”
He promised to improve workers’ conditions and the economy with “the blessing of British business,” in a step back from the class-conflict rhetoric of the party’s left wing.
A former national chief prosecutor, Starmer was elected Labour leader in April 2020 to replace hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had led the party to two heavy election defeats in 2017 and 2019 — the latter its worst result since 1935.
Yet Starmer has struggled to make an impact while the country’s attention was consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has left at least 135,000 people in Britain dead — the highest death toll in Europe after Russia. In recent days a fuel-supply crisis triggered by a truck-driver shortage has shut down thousands of gas stations and led to long lines of frustrated motorists around the country.
He also leads a party that is deeply divided after a decade out of power and was tarred by allegations of anti-Semitism under Corbyn.
Starmer is caught between two wings of the fractious party. Many Labour members think the party must veer to the center to win, as it did under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who won three successive election victories. Yet Corbyn’s still-numerous supporters loathe Blair and want Starmer to stick to his predecessor’s socialist policies of nationalization and spending hikes.
The splits were clear as Starmer was sporadically heckled during a speech that lasted well over an hour. Starmer spoke beyond the room to the wider British public, taking aim at both the Conservative government and his own party.
He depicted Johnson’s administration as a chumocracy that awarded its friends with contracts while inequality in British society grew — something he linked to the country’s high coronavirus toll.
“There were cracks in British society and COVID seeped into them,” Starmer said.
He took on his hecklers by asking delegates whether they preferred “shouting slogans or changing lives.” Starmer set out a series of election-style promises to improve social care, education, working conditions and innovation.
Conference leaders’ televised speeches are one of the few chances politicians other than the prime minister have to address the public directly outside of election campaigns. Britain is not scheduled to hold a national election until 2024, though many expect Johnson to call one at least a year earlier than that.
Party conferences are an annual fixture of British politics, though they were curtailed in 2020 by the pandemic. This year, it’s back to business.
Labour’s conference ends Wednesday in the English southern seaside city of Brighton. The governing Tories hold their own four-day shindig in Manchester starting Sunday.