Starmer — A New Chapter For Britain?

Keir Starmer has resorted to what all floundering politicians or political projects do when their prospects dim: he’s had a reset. Like Boris Johnson continually did during his polling meltdown last year, and like Donald Trump did as his re-election prospects turned fatal. Starmer, for a brief and glorious moment in his career (and one that may turn out to be the pinnacle of his leadership), was the Labourite golden boy, recovering the party’s prospects after a walloping a mere few months prior. Alas, it faded away, and this speech promised to “set out an ideological stake”, in the next phase of Starmer’s bid for No 10.

A lot was promised in this speech. An clear ideological positioning, a fleshing out of the core policy agenda of the Starmer project, and a comprehensive vision for post-COVID Britain. In short, all the right things to begin to set out at this phase in the political cycle, so a case and a vision can be laid out to the public continually for a few years, as opposed to springing it all in a blitz come election time (a fatal flaw in 2019). This speech however, massively underdelivered on its own terms and terrain; to my ear, there was no overriding principle or vision, and the policy was sufficiently vague as to sit just about anywhere between the Cameron government and the Corbyn project, with no clear stake set out.

There was nothing in the speech that was highly objectionable or anything I’d necessarily oppose, which is always nice. We didn’t hear statements or positions that were a direct betrayal of the pledges Starmer stood on for the leadership. What was most telling about the speech wasn’t the little that made it in, but the key planks that were notably absent.

This speech was pitched as setting out an economic vision, and Starmer talked about his vision for a fairer economy, and the role of British business. But there was no talk of public ownership, contrasted to plenty of talking up of the virtues of private enterprise; these aren’t mutually exclusive things, and the erasure of any mention of new models of public ownership is very telling in terms of the economic priorities of Starmerism. Done correctly, public ownership can see a radical democratisation of wealth and power in communities right across the country, undoing the wrongs of 40 years of Thatcherite dogma selling off our sovereign assets.

Keir Starmer did something many had urged him to do for a while, and shifted the tone from just “Johnson bad” or “govt incompetence” to the systemic issues with Tory dogma, the fact our public services and infrastructure have been laid bare, and the Conservatives have allowed inequality and poverty to persist, fester, grow. This may have been the strongest part of the speech, with a really spirited and passionate defence of active government, of investment for the future, and a rethinking of a rotten economic model, Starmer became human and made a spirited and authentic case for the values he claims to believe in; exactly the form of Keir Starmer voters need to see more of.

A fatal error can be detected in that by simply talking up a more active government working in partnership with the private sector, and claiming the Tories are still austerity peddling fiscal hawks allergic to state spending or investment, Labour have given the Tories the chance to do these things (they’re planning high state spending for a decade) and steal their lunch by doing the bare minimum. The 2010 Tory party is dead, it died last year, and the 2020 Tory party is here with a radical ideological project to overhaul the economy in the interests of the 1%; Starmer must do the same, but for the 99%, with really radical ideas. In my mind, there was no clear clash, just a critique of the Tory model that just died anyway. Past criticism of the Tory record to build a case for 2024 is right, and it’s what Cameron/Osborne did with New Labour, but the forward looking vision must be bolder.

A British Recovery Bond was the most striking idea to come out of this speech, so let’s unpack it in more detail. In terms of democratising the economy more, it seems on the surface like a good idea, utilising saving during the pandemic for the public good, providing people secure investments, and investing in science and technology to turbo-charge the economic recovery, it could be utilised in a really progressive way. But it must come in a package of other measures, not a ditching of redistributive taxation (as was hinted at, and would be sheer calamity, positioning Labour potentially to the right of Rishi Sunak), or too heavy a focus on those that can afford to save; this is Labour, not the Lib Dems.

Starmer focused on talking up economic credibility and business, the question always has to be which kind of businesses. Small, people powered enterprises are the right things for Labour to focus on growing, but refusing to hike taxes on corporations (also hinted at, for now) is also a huge error. The measures set out today could fit in with New Labour, or at John McDonnell’s Shadow Treasury, it’s all very vague. It needn’t be all public sector, but there was a heavy private sector lean at the expense of various oven ready radical state lead policies.

Labour does look to be aiming for a high standards, high wages, and radically reshaped economy. The problem is the details of such an economy, or any sort of roadmap, where wholly missing from today’s outing. Labour needs to position itself on the side of working people, not false equivalencies between “business and labor” like they are coherent and collaborative entities, and there’s no such thing as class struggle, the erasure of which from Starmer’s rhetoric raised core concerns for me about the values at play at the top.

In order for any of us to be really clear on the direction this speech leads we need to hear more (and hopefully we will) from Labour over the coming weeks. There were some excellent rhetorical themes, and it was easily Sir Keir’s best delivered speech yet, but it has to sufficiently draw battle lines, something that didn’t happen here, with a blend of policy, plenty of it promising, hardly any solid or radical.

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Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Insightful and innovative UK journalism and commentary, from Toby Lipatti-Mesme.