The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 7 November 2023.
Before I turn to the Humble Address, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to His Majesty the King on the occasion of his first Gracious Speech as our sovereign. Of course, he gave the speech last year, and has for some time enjoyed the best view in the House on how it should be done. None the less, this is a new chapter for him and our country, so we pay tribute to him.
I also congratulate both the mover and seconder of the Humble Address for their fantastic speeches. The right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) once again showed us his deep love for his constituency and delivered a truly great speech. He has been a good servant and is well respected across the House, but he is now wanted again on his farm. I can inform the House that he is also one of this country’s leading steam engine enthusiasts and the proud owner of a Fowler K5 ploughing engine, which is not a tractor, but is none the less a beautiful machine that on a good day, when he really steps on it, can still give the TransPennine Express a run for its money. However, I warn him to be careful: there are some weird and wonderful details in all those Network North announcements, and the Prime Minister might commandeer his Fowler—for illustrative purposes only, of course.
It was great to hear the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) make a powerful speech to this House. It is only right that the Prime Minister selected someone with good sense to second the Humble Address, and so of course he had to turn to a working-class lawyer with a connection to Camden. I can say from personal knowledge, and from many people in Camden, that as a Camden councillor she was respected across parties, as she is here. A year ago, she rightly pointed out that
“there are many ways to boost domestic energy security using nuclear, solar, marine energy…and onshore wind”—
an argument that shows exactly why she has a bright future within her party. It is a shame that, instead of choosing her to second the Humble Address, the Prime Minister did not ask her to write the energy section of the King’s Speech.
We are lucky enough not to have lost any Members of this House since the last Address, but, as we approach the end of this cycle, it is only right that we once again remember those whom we all still miss so much, who left us earlier in this Parliament. On the Opposition Benches we lost our beloved friend Jack Dromey, a champion of working people for the ages. On the Government Benches we lost Dame Cheryl Gillan, James Brokenshire and of course Sir David Amess, who was taken from us in the vilest and cruellest of circumstances. We on the Opposition Benches still mourn the loss of Jo Cox, one of our brightest lights, seven years ago now in similar fashion, so we reach out across the aisle and say of Sir David, as does the plaque put up in the Chamber in recent weeks, “His light remains.”
Mr Speaker, it is also customary to welcome new Members to the House—although, given that you are a stickler for parliamentary time limits, that could be difficult. I welcome all 11 new Members to the first of these debates: one for the Conservative party, two for the Liberal Democrats and eight for Labour. Those are victories that show, without question, that Britain is ready for change; victories that have reduced the Conservative party—now nearly 14 years in power—to the desperate spectacle of claiming that it offers change away from itself.
Today’s speech shows just how ridiculous that posturing is, because what we have before us is a plan for more of the same: more sticking plasters; more division; more party first, country second gimmicks; and no repudiation of the utterly discredited idea that economic growth is something that the few hand down to the many. In fact, today we reached something of a new low, because the Conservatives are not even pretending to govern any more. They have given up on any sense of service. They see our country’s problems as something to be exploited, not solved. In doing that, they underestimate the British people, because what Britain wants is for them to stop messing around and get on with the job. People want action, not inaction; solutions to real problems, not the imaginary ones that haunt the Conservative party’s imagination; a Government who are committed to the national interest, not desperately trying to save their own skin.
Our schools are crumbling, waiting lists are rising, rivers and streams are dying, infrastructure is being cancelled, violent criminals are being released early, the Conservatives’ mortgage bombshell is blowing up the finances of millions, growth is set to be the lowest in the G7 next year, and taxes are higher than at any time since the war—the Prime Minister raised them himself 25 times. The Tory recipe for British decline: low growth, high tax, crumbling public services, with the Prime Minister serving up more of the same.
Of course, there are steps we can welcome: Jade’s law, Martyn’s law and an independent regulator in football. We have said that on smoking and public health, the Prime Minister can count on our votes. We will always serve the national interest. That is why this House has stood united in our support for Ukraine since the start of Putin’s aggression, and we must never lose our resolve or focus.
The speech mentions the terrible events in Israel and Palestine. It is now one month exactly since the senseless murder of Jews by the terrorists of Hamas and the taking of hostages on 7 October. Every new day in Gaza brings with it more pain, more suffering, more agony. Hostages are still held; thousands of civilians are dead, including so many innocent women and children; millions are struggling for the basics of life—food, water, sanitation, medicines and fuel. We cannot and we will not close our eyes to their suffering. We need a humanitarian pause now and for the hostages to be released now. Israel has the right and duty to defend herself, but that is not a blank cheque; it must comply with international law. This House must commit to doing whatever it can to keep alive the light of peace, so we welcome the clear commitment in the speech to supporting the two-state solution.
To return once more to the Conservatives’ plan for Britain, the biggest question is how they think that this is anywhere near good enough. After all the chaos they have unleashed—after levelling up, “No rules were broken,” “We’re all in it together,” and all the other broken promises of the last 13 years—this is the plan that they put to the working people of this country and say, “Trust us, we’ve changed.” It’s laughable. They cannot see Britain: that is the only possible conclusion. The walls of this place are too high. But let me assure the House that Britain sees them, and Britain sees today that they offer no change on public services, no change on the cost of living crisis, and no change to the economic model that has failed to give working people the security and opportunity that they deserve. That is the change that Britain needs, and today was a missed opportunity.
We needed a King’s Speech that would draw a line under 13 years of Tory decline—a King’s Speech for national renewal and a serious plan for growth. But instead, we have a party so devoid of leadership that it is happy to follow a Home Secretary who describes homelessness as a “lifestyle choice” and believes that the job of protecting us all from extremists—the most basic job of government—is legitimate terrain for her divisive brand of politics. As Director of Public Prosecutions, I worked closely with the police and counter-terrorism forces. Their job is hard enough already without the Home Secretary using it as a platform for her own ambitions. I say to the Prime Minister: think very carefully about what she is committing your Government to do, and think very carefully about the consequences of putting greater demands on public servants at the coalface of keeping us safe—because without a serious Home Secretary, there can be no serious Government, and he cannot be a serious Prime Minister.
Homelessness is a choice—it is a political choice. Constant U-turns on no-fault evictions are political choices. Not facing up to the blockers of aspiration on the Government Benches is a political choice. And it is not that there aren’t better choices. On the Opposition Benches, we have a plan to build 1.5 million homes across the country, with a reformed planning regime that will unlock our potential, because you can’t fix homelessness without increasing the supply of housing, you can’t boost growth unless workers have the homes they need, and you can’t escape the cost of living crisis unless there is more affordable housing.
We all know why the Prime Minister finds himself in this position, but if he is prepared to stand up to the blockers, and if he shows he can radically improve the supply of housing by bringing back national housing targets, then yes, he can count on Labour votes, because that is what this country needs most: a credible plan for growth; a Britain where growth comes from the grassroots and growth serves the grassroots, with higher living standards in every community—an ambition that can only be delivered if we roll up our sleeves and get building. At the moment, just to get a tunnel built in this country can require a planning application 30 times longer than the complete works of Shakespeare. That is why today we needed a planning Bill to strip out the red tape and get Britain building.
We also needed a bold commitment to train the next generation, with new technical colleges, apprenticeship levy reform and expert teachers in every classroom, giving British businesses the skills they need. We needed a modern industrial strategy on a statutory footing, with a Bill to match—a signal of intent to the world that we are serious about fighting for the jobs of the future. We needed an employment Bill. Time and again, this Bill has been promised; time and again, it fails to materialise, when we could be scrapping fire and rehire, ending zero-hours contracts, making work pay with a real living wage and saying unambiguously that strong workers’ rights are good for growth. What we got instead is an exercise in economic miserabilism: an admission that his Government have no faith in Britain’s ability to avert decline.
Take the oil and gas Bill announced today—a Bill that everyone in the energy sector knows is a political gimmick and even the Energy Secretary admits will not take a single penny off anyone’s bills. I do not know which of his seven bins the Prime Minister chucked her meat tax in, but this one will follow soon. None the less, it is a gimmick that tells a story: a King’s Speech with no concern for the national interest, wallowing in a pessimism that says the hard road to a better future isn’t for Britain.
It has been this way for 13 years now: a failure to seize the opportunities, perhaps even to see the opportunities; working people hit because the Conservatives did not build the gas storage, they did not invest in clean British energy, and they scrapped home insulation. And they are doing it all again: moving the targets back, and passing it on to the next generation, even as costs rise and rise. This is sticking-plaster politics—an approach as riven through the foundations of our security as the crumbling concrete in our schools. The never-ending cycle of Tory Britain: party first, country second; drift, stagnate, decline.
We have to turn the page. The Government are wrong about clean energy—it is cheaper, it is British and it can give us real security against tyrants like Putin. More importantly, they are wrong about Britain. We can win the race for jobs of tomorrow; we can work hand in glove with the private sector and invest in critical infrastructure—the gigafactories, the new ports and the clean British steel that can once again light the fire of renewal in British industrial communities.
Today was the day we could have struck the match for that light, embraced a new sense of mission and tackled the cost of living crisis with a new plan for growth. There was a chance to get Britain building again—take back our streets, get the NHS back on its feet, deliver cheaper bills with real energy security, and tear down the barriers to opportunity—but for the 14th year in a row, the Government passed it up, severed their relationship with Britain’s future and gave up on the national interest.
The speech shows with ever greater clarity that the only fight left in the Government is the fight for their own skin—a Government who have given up, dragging Britain down with them, ever more steadily towards decline; a day on which it became crystal clear that the change Britain needs is from Tory decline to Labour renewal.