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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer's conference speech and what it means for support in Kent

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It was hailed as make or break for the leader of the Labour party but was it enough to win over voters in Kent's true-blue Tory heartland and quell internal party tensions? Political editor Paul Francis gives his take on Keir Starmer’s conference speech.

Keir Starmer began the conference week by being drawn into an awkward disagreement over transgender issues triggered by Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield, Kent’s only Labour MP.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

She stayed away from Brighton because of concerns over her safety but whatever differences she had with her leader were put aside, tweeting immediately after the 90-minute marathon to describe it as a “truly great” speech.

That verdict may not have been shared by some party members, who tried - largely unsuccessfully - to disrupt proceedings with some pre-prepared heckling.

Clocking in at an hour and a half, you could not say it was short on content but on some of the key issues for Kent, it was a case of what wasn't said rather than what was.

There was nothing on how a Labour government would tackle the on-going issue of asylum seekers crossing the Channel; nor its position on house building and the targets that have been widely condemned - not least by Conservative-run councils.

The speech set out plans to narrow the attainment gap in schools between socially disadvantaged pupils and their peers - but honed in on private schools, saying they would lose their charitable status to fund more teachers rather than what Labour would do about state-funded grammars.

Labour MP Rosie Duffield
Labour MP Rosie Duffield

Of course, party leaders’ speeches are commonly peppered with broad-brush policy pledges rather than commitments based on a geographical areas.

They are also designed to give voters an insight into not just their leader's political beliefs are but what drives them. On this measure, he was effective, talking about the care that his mother had from the NHS when she was being treated for an incurable condition.

He staked out a claim for the party to be the party of law and order, saying “crime would always be a Labour issue” - a bold declaration that had echoes of Tony Blair.

Whether the speech will galvanise support in the Kent constituencies the party needs to win to form a government is hard to call.

But it cemented his hold on the party, showed he can get passionate and made clear that as far as he was concerned, he was calling time on the Corbyn era that led to a catastrophic defeat in the 2019 election.

From the rows that dominated the early part of the week, it was a speech that ended the party’s trip to the seaside on a note of optimism and possibly relief. It may not be completely united but political parties rarely are.

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