Labour’s big pitch puts Starmer front and centre – and climate in the back seat

Labour’s big pitch puts Starmer front and centre – and climate in the back seat

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When Keir Starmer walked over to his seat in Purfleet’s Backstage Centre today, it was the second time I’d seen him that morning.

The first time, he was about 50 feet tall and stretched across a digital billboard on London’s Old Street.

Beside him, highlighted in red, was a list of six ‘first steps for change’ – part of a major policy push that has marked the effective launch of Labour’s general election campaign.

Clearly, the party is keen to put its leader – the second-most popular politician in the country after Nigel Farage, according to YouGov – at the centre of its effort to win over voters. There he is, in black and white, wearing glasses and a serious expression, sleeves rolled up.

Even more so than usual for these types of things, today’s event felt like a gig with support act after support act leading up to the headliner. No fewer than 14 separate people (live or televised) spoke before Sir Keir took to the stage.

They included six members of the shadow cabinet, Labour candidate Mike Tapp (who hopes to take over from Tory defector Natalie Elphicke as MP for Dover), business leaders and other party supporters.

The highlight came in the form of a music teacher named Nathaniel Dye, who began his speech by announcing he was dying from cancer. If the NHS was in better shape, he said, he may have been treated earlier and ended up with more than three or four years to live.

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But it wasn’t, so he hasn’t.

Nathaniel’s bluntness about his mortality was breathtaking, and his was the only speech apart from Sir Keir’s which was met with a standing ovation.

Sir Keir Starmer spoke today with a backdrop of his six policies and his shadow cabinet (Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire)

Once everyone else had spoken, the lectern was removed from the stage. A former Tory voter introduced the Labour leader, and he promptly stepped up to the stage.

He was tie-free and his sleeves were once again rolled up. His team must have liked the way he looked after the infamous Labour conference glitter incident last October. Unlike the other speakers, Sir Keir’s teleprompter just featured a list of bullet points rather than precise wording.

He spoke about a family who had decided not to have a second child after Liz Truss’s 2022 mini-budget, and about a woman with an ingrown eyelash who had waited 18 months to be treated before being told to wait 12 months more.

As one more than one journalist pointed out when he turned to the press afterwards, it was a little reminiscent of Tony Blair in his prime – keen to put across a down-to-earth image. For what it’s worth, the current Labour leader said he’s not trying to emulate any of his predecessors in particular.

When it was my turn to speak, I asked him about something I’d noticed in the booklet outlining the ‘first steps’ which we’d been handed upon arrival.

Despite going into depth about the publicly owned new clean power company Labour wants to set up, it avoided all mention of the words ‘environment’ or ‘climate’ – quite an impressive feat, I thought.

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The reaction of shadow energy secretary and former leader Ed Miliband, an enthusiastic environmentalist, told me I might have struck upon a backstage debate: he looked around at his colleagues and grinned as I spoke.

Sir Keir told me: ‘First of all, you’re right to highlight the importance of climate.

‘Obviously, what we’re saying about Great British Energy is the first step towards clean power 2030. That’s a massive contribution to our environmental obligations.

‘It’s also the only way to get bills down for good, to get energy security, and actually to harness the jobs of the future.’

A source later told me the party is deliberately moving away from spotlighting green issues and towards discussing sky-high energy bills and reliance on oil and gas supplied from countries like Russia instead.

Like the rest of the event, it was a glimpse at the messaging we can expect to hear a lot over the next few months. You almost certainly haven’t seen the last of the 50ft Keir Starmer.

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