‘Coming back to finish the job’: Starmer aims to reclaim centre ground

<span>Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Keir Starmer will attempt to take on the mantle of Tony Blair on Tuesday by describing Labour as the “political wing of the British people” as he accuses the Tories of losing control of the economy and ceding the political centre.

In his keynote speech to the Labour conference in Liverpool, Starmer will set out his stall for the next general election by saying his plans show that Labour is once again “the party of the centre ground”.

He will state that Labour now offers the country a “fresh start” after the turbulence of successive Conservative governments, and will commit to getting the UK “out of this endless cycle of crisis”.

“What we’ve seen from the government in the past few days has no precedent,” he will say, a view on the economic disarray of recent days shared by many jittery Tory MPs. “They’ve lost control of the British economy – and for what? For tax cuts for the richest 1% in our society.”

Along with his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, he has argued Labour is now the party of financial responsibility – or “sound money” – after the pound plummeted in response to the Tories’ plans to borrow billions to pay for massive tax cuts.

The Labour members have, for the first time in years, appeared more comfortable celebrating the achievements of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, with both featuring prominently in a campaigning video shown in the main hall – and New Labour’s architect Peter Mandelson has been watching the speeches.

The current Labour leader’s choice of phrase – that his party is now the “political wing of the British people” – is a direct echo of the same statement made by Blair about New Labour, shortly before coming to power in 1997.

Labour’s lead over the Tories has reached 17 points, according to a YouGov poll for the Times. The survey over the weekend put Labour on 45%, with the Tories on 28% – the largest lead for Labour since YouGov started polling in 2001.

Starmer will also announce plans for a major overhaul of the skills and apprenticeships system, based on work by the Council for Skills Advisors – led by Lord Blunkett, another key Blairite figure, the Guardian can reveal.

Several shadow cabinet ministers at conference, which opened with the national anthem, have made comparisons to Labour’s last stint in government. Frontbencher Lisa Nandy said the party was “coming back to finish the job” of New Labour, with the party undergoing a dramatic transformation and now “fit to govern”.

Lord Mandelson said that Britons now believe that it is “now safe” to vote Labour again, with the party moving on from the Corbyn era, and had decided that the Tories “have had their chance”.

He added: “We knew how to run a railway in the lead-up to it and during as we entered power. We were always remembering where the British people are rather than where some in our party would like them to be.”

A Labour spokesperson, embracing the comparison to the Blair era, said: “This is a Labour party that has changed. It’s back in the centre ground, and that’s absolutely something we want to signal.

“Ultimately, he [Starmer] wants to be the next Labour leader who takes the party from opposition into government.”

A snap YouGov poll on Monday found that almost twice as many people, 36% to 19%, believe that a Labour government under Starmer would have the right policies and plans to tackle the rising cost of living, compared with Liz Truss’s government.

In Tuesday’s speech, Starmer will say: “We should never be left cowering in a brace position, worrying about how to get through a winter. It’s time for Britain to stand tall again.”

The Guardian can reveal that a future Labour government would reform the apprenticeships levy, widely regarded as a failure, into a “growth and skills levy”, by giving businesses the flexibility they need to train their workforce.

They will be able to spend up to 50% of their levy contributions, including current underspend, on other types of training. Labour would also devolve spending on adult education skills to combined authorities, and establish a new expert body – Skills England – to oversee the drive nationally.

Research shows that 61% of businesses in the UK currently believe they have a skills shortage in their organisation and they spend an estimated £6.1bn annually on inflated salaries, recruitment fees and temporary staff in order to address the shortages.

Starmer will say: “Labour will give employers new flexibility to invest in the world class training they need. Businesses want high skills, workers want skills training when they need it. We will see the biggest partnership between government, business and communities this country has ever seen.”

His strategy to boost growth includes a “green prosperity plan” to create one million new jobs in towns and cities across the country. He will commit to beginning this mission – which also includes bringing down energy bills, raising living standards and tackling the climate crisis – within 100 days of forming a government.