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‘I’ve changed this party, permanently’: Keir Starmer promises red renewal in Tory party’s blue backyard

The Labour leader travelled to England’s southern coast for his first big speech of the campaign

As the UK Labour Party plots a return to power in the upcoming general election, its strategists aim to ease the way by overturning the Tories in places such as Lancing, part of a once-safe blue constituency that is now firmly back in play.

So it made sense that it was here in this modest, slightly dog-eared English seaside village that Keir Starmer chose to show a little ankle to Britain’s electorate, with his first big speech of the campaign.

Just a peek, mind. This was still steady-as-she-goes Starmer and there were no political firecrackers. But in a manner befitting the cautious man who seems on course to become prime minister, Starmer set out more of his political stall – an end to Westminster chaos and more stability, a focus on core concerns such as crime and the economy, greater “service”.

“Service isn’t just a word, it requires action. You have to roll up your sleeves and change things for the better,” he told a crowd of Labour supporters in Lancing’s little parish hall. “I have changed this party, dragged it back to service. And I will do exactly the same for Westminster,” he said, pitching the July 4th election as a chance for Britain to begin anew.


Lancing is a two-hour drive south of London on the West Sussex coast, 14km west of Brighton. The village, with its shingly beach and seafront burger vans, is neither downright ugly nor very attractive. It is more of a plain Jane domain; quintessentially British and unfussy. It lies in the constituency of East Worthing and Shoreham, which has voted Tory since its boundaries were created 27 years ago – not even Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide could turn this little blue spot red.

Tim Loughton, a colourful Tory back bencher who claims to meditate for an hour in the bath each morning, has held the seat since its creation. Now he, along with more than 80 of his Tory colleagues, has joined the “chicken run” of government MPs standing down at the election as the Labour battle bus bears down on Downing Street with Starmer at the wheel.

The parish hall was abuzz on this bank holiday Monday morning as the crowd of about 120 waited for Starmer’s arrival. The tea counter was festooned with Union Jacks, an example of Labour’s recent strategy to appeal more to the kind of sturdy English folk who warmed to Brexit and Boris Johnson.

Blair’s 1997 anthem was D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better. Starmer would later on Monday dodge a question about what his anthem might be. But as the man who says he changed the Labour Party prepared to enter the room, the Harry Styles track playing on the parish hall stereo seemed as good a bet as any. “You know it’s not the same as it was/in this world/it’s just us….” .

Catherine, a local woman who said her father was from Wexford, was excited waiting for Starmer to speak. She said the most important thing for her was to hear reassurance from the would-be next prime minister that he would fix Britain’s ailing National Health Service.

“The country is in chaos,” she said. Catherine was on message: Starmer mentioned Tory “chaos” nine times in his speech

He was introduced by the local Labour candidate, Tom Rutland. The Tories have yet to select Loughton’s replacement for this, one of their heartland seats, in yet another sign that the governing party was not as ready for electoral battle as prime minister Rishi Sunak suggested.

Plenty of Starmer’s speech was old ground – his modest background as the Surrey son of a toolmaker and a nurse. His ordinary values. He compared them with the values of the ordinary folks of Lancing.

This England has always been far removed from Westminster,” he said, stressing the first word. He accused the Tories of afflicting places such as Lancing with “a politics that at best does things to people, not with them”. At worst, he said, as he referenced recent farragoes such as the Post Office scandal, it is “much darker”.

Yet he was also prepared to acknowledge that many people in places like Lancing might struggle to trust the Labour Party on central issues such as national security and defence. Addressing head-on a regular Tory put-down of him, Starmer insisted that, in fact, they could rely on him to break up the “vile gangs” trafficking refugees and to protect Britain’s borders.

“Country first, party second,” he said. “I’ve changed this party, permanently.”

He answered questions from handpicked UK media, including one referencing Tory attacks on him as “sleepy Starmer”, on account of his age, 61 against prime minister Rishi Sunak’s 44. No way, he insisted. He said he was raring to go. “We’ve got the energy. I’ve got the energy. I’ve had a smile on my face since January 1st because I knew this would be the year of the election.”

Labour needs a 7 per cent swing from the Tories to take East Worthing and Shoreham. It needs almost double that nationally for an outright majority. Starmer’s steely demeanour in Lancing suggested a belief they will do it.