By Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) - British opposition leader Keir Starmer appealed on Tuesday to former supporters of his Labour Party to return to the fold with a message that he offers a "new leadership" and shares their patriotic values.
Labour suffered heavy losses at last year's election, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives won seats in the opposition's heartlands with a promise to "get Brexit done" and by tapping into discontent with leftist then-leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Turning to what he described as his anger against Johnson's "serial incompetence" over the coronavirus crisis and Brexit talks, Starmer also distanced himself from Corbyn, saying Labour was becoming "a competent, credible opposition".
Starmer, elected Labour leader in April, wants to win back many of the so-called 'Red Wall' seats in northern and central England taken by the Conservatives, and also faces a tough struggle to convince voters in Scotland to return to the party.
Addressing the party's virtual conference from the northern English town of Doncaster, Starmer told Labour members: "To those people in Doncaster and Deeside, in Glasgow and Grimsby, in Stoke and in Stevenage to those who have turned away from Labour, I say this: we hear you."
"I ask you: take another look at Labour. We're under new leadership. We love this country as you do," the 58-year-old former chief prosecutor said.
Starmer also set out his vision for Britain, saying a Labour government would properly fund public services, create a world-class education system, invest in skills and become "an active force for good in the world" by tackling climate change.
With an election still nearly four years away, Starmer is trying to navigate Labour's way in winning back former supporters while holding the Conservative government to account, without being seen as unnecessarily critical at a time when the country is struggling with the coronavirus pandemic.
After many Brexit supporters were wooed by Johnson's election message that only he could "get Brexit done", Starmer drew a line under Labour's often confusing position, saying the party was "not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe" and instead wanted a deal with the EU.
Labour has caught up with the Conservatives for the first time since Johnson became prime minister in July last year, according to a YouGov opinion poll published last Friday that put both parties on 40%.
But the Conservatives, who have an 80-seat parliamentary majority, are hoping that, by the time of the next election, they will have recovered strongly from the current criticism of their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
To counter that, Starmer stepped up his criticism of Johnson personally.
"And I think we’ve learnt a lot about this prime minister," he said. "He’s just not serious. He’s just not up to the job."
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Gareth Jones)