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24 September 2022

Can Keir Starmer show the country what his Labour Party is all about?

The real question is not “what would a Labour government do?” It’s “what would a Labour government be like?”

By Philip Collins

The Labour Party is just about to enter the white heat of its conference hall in Liverpool. There is yet another Conservative Prime Minister, meaning the Tories have had as many Prime Ministers in the last six years as Labour has had in the last seven decades. The economic backdrop the Truss government inherits would be horribly difficult, even if the Prime Minister and her Chancellor were not responding with unaffordable tax cuts. For the first time since 2010 Labour has a leader who is a plausible Prime Minister in waiting. The temptation to play safe is obvious.

The pressure on Keir Starmer is largely to do the opposite: to reveal more, to go harder. Starmer has been subject to repeated demands that Labour should reveal more policy. He has, so far, resisted, quite rightly reasoning that it is still too early in the cycle to parade a whole manifesto. When an opposition unveils a new policy, it undergoes one of two possible fates. Either it is stolen and enacted by the government, like the windfall tax on the gas and oil companies, or it is ignored, like the £28 billion pledge to invest in industries that will help to combat climate change.

A huge policy shopping list unveiled in Liverpool would be quickly forgotten. The demand for “policy” is not really a demand for policy as such. Nobody apart from the professionals in the trade really wants to know in detail what Labour intends to do about the integrated care systems in the National Health Service or the precise regulatory demands to be placed on Ofsted. The demand for policy is, in fact, a demand for clarity. The real question is not “what would a Labour government do?” Underneath, the real question is “what would a Labour government be like?”

The skill that is needed, the skill of clever opposition, is virtue signalling. Successful oppositions give the public a flavour of what they would be like. They might do this with the odd indicative policy but usually it is less concrete even than that. Tony Blair indicated that Labour would have a different position on both trade union power and the treatment of criminals than had hitherto been expected. We heard he would be tough on crime but we didn’t know what that exactly meant. Likewise, David Cameron signalled a break with the ugly Conservatism that had languished for a decade in opposition with his “hug a hoodie” campaign on anti-social behaviour. He didn’t say a word about what that would mean in practice.

[See also: Who’s who in Keir Starmer’s team?]

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There is a highly instructive example of political signalling in the biography of Harold Wilson that has just been published by Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow secretary for international trade. Wilson was such an adept leader of the opposition that Labour recovered quickly from the great shock of Hugh Gaitskell’s death in 1963. His most memorable platform moment came as leader of the opposition, not as prime minister. In October 1963, in the Grand Hall in Scarborough, Wilson gave an address to the party conference in which he declared that Labour’s mission was to forge a new country out of the white heat of the technological revolution. There wasn’t much policy in the speech but it felt like the electorate understood what Labour might be like.

The task for the Labour Party conference, then, is to define an approach which stands as a kind of metaphorical representation of the kind of Labour government we can expect. One of the big strategic choices Labour faces is where to land on public spending. The numbers, even before the new Chancellor stood up to present his mini-Budget, were eye-watering. The Office for Budget Responsibility expects public expenditure to be £1,087 billion in 2022-23, which is equivalent to 43.2 per cent of national income. Debt will be over 95 per cent of national income. Interest payments on that debt will be bleeding £87.2 billion in 2022-23 on a deficit of £99.1 billion. Britain has net debt and is running a budget deficit that is far above the average for the industrial world.

These horrible numbers offer some political wriggle room. The instinct in the Labour Party is always to outbid the Tories on spending but there is now no need. The Tories, by dint of circumstance, have been forced to accept the case for high public spending. Labour could be happy that 43.2 per cent of national income is a far bigger slice of revenue than any of its previous prime ministers ever took. Matching the current spending plans is hardly a capitulation to fiscal conservatism. Indeed, if Labour really wanted to signal its economic virtue the obvious thing to do is to decry the Tories as profligate and project spending plans that come in just under the baseline set by Kwasi Kwarteng.

Wilson’s hopes going into his 1963 speech were low. He knew the conference hall would expect “a tub-thumping speech about Tory iniquities” and he worried that “they would hardly welcome a disquisition on science and technology”. He was wrong about that. Reporting on the BBC news that day, Robert McKenzie said that the speech had moved the Labour Party forward fifty years in fifty minutes. Wilson wasn’t inventing the exact mechanisms of the industrial strategy as he scribbled away. What he was doing instead was signalling that Labour was a different kind of party with a different kind of leader. He was the one man who could bring the ordinariness of Huddersfield together with an understanding of the unfolding future. Wilson offered not the minutiae of a policy committee. He was saying, in effect, to quote the appropriate sub-title of Thomas-Symonds’s biography, that he was “the winner”.

[See also: Kwasi Kwarteng scraps 45% top tax rate]

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