It seems that someone was paying attention to Liz Truss after all. The message that the UK has alarmingly weak growth prospects, which will only be solved by changing supply-side policy, has not been taken up by the Tory party but by Keir Starmer, who has been promoting Labour’s new agenda to build houses, improve the energy supply and encourage investment in industry. Writing about the Labour Party’s future policy agenda in the New Statesman this week, Starmer said, “Imagine what would happen if we fired up the engines of growth everywhere… Seizing new opportunities, not letting Britain fall behind in the global race.”
I did a double take when I read that. Was this Keir before us, or Liz?
You might associate the “global race” with David Cameron and George Osborne, who made it the centre of the coalition government’s messaging in 2012. The idea that Britain was in a global race and needed to catch up didn’t originate with Cameron though. It came from the Free Enterprise Group and its pamphlet Britannia Unchained. This group of MPs was coordinated by a then relatively unknown backbencher, one Liz Truss. When her message made it to Downing Street, it was roundly rejected. Now it seems that it will be reincarnated. I wrote recently that Truss would eventually become a Barry Goldwater figure in the Tory party. Her influence is indeed spreading – but on the other side of the aisle.
[See also: Keir Starmer essay: This is what I believe]
Starmer’s rhetoric and agenda – as he wrote in the New Statesman, achieving the highest level of growth in the G7 is his first priority – is remarkably similar to Truss’s. He has even picked up talking points (such as about Britain’s decline relative to countries like Poland) from the pro-growth campaign Britain Remade, founded in the shadow of Truss’s defeat. The shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves wrote in the Times recently that she wants to lead Britain back to greatness. When Truss said those things we were busy comparing her to Margaret Thatcher.
Starmer and Reeves would no doubt baulk at being compared to Truss. There are no unfunded tax cuts proposed. But there has been a marked change of tone since Starmer’s speech about growth in July, when he talked about partnership, financial responsibility and being “distinctively British”. That rhetoric is still there, but the new emphasis on the country’s trajectory of “managed decline” and prioritising a return to growth via improved productivity and economic reform has no better parallel in modern politics. If Truss’s ideals are going to live on in any form it is likely to be with Labour. The party even complains that taxes are at their highest level for 70 years.
Much of the devil is in the detail and the Starmer plan is not the same as Truss’s in its particulars. Indeed, we are still waiting for much of Labour’s policy specifics. But its promise, made a few days ago, to “update our planning system to remove barriers to investment in new industries”, the focus on generating more green energy, and the welcome emphasis on human capital, will all be intriguing music to supply-side reformers’ ears.
Starmer is even prepared to say that Brexit is not the only, or even the central, problem of British growth. He told a group of financiers recently: “The problem we have on growth and skills and investment predated Brexit, and therefore to simply say the problem is Brexit, the answer is Brexit, I think fails to deal with the underlying issue which is so important, about investment and stability.” Truss has been complaining about the underlying issues of investment and productivity in the British economy for years.
The way Starmer most resembles Truss, though, is in his realisation that growth helps everyone, enables mobility, and that it doesn’t just improve living standards but encourages people to flourish as individuals. Here is the core of Starmer’s fourth priority, “Break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage”, as he expressed it in the NS: “Childcare, housing, skills and education must all help reverse the rapid decline in social mobility over the last few years. Imagine an education system where every child, in every part of the country, is prepared with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to thrive in this complex world.”
How many times did I hear Truss say something similar when I worked alongside her? She was the one who made Westminster pay attention to the egregious fact that many women spend more on childcare than they do on rent or mortgages. Her proposals weren’t universally popular, but as with the global race, Starmer and Truss are more closely aligned than we might expect. Starmer phrases things in a way that is less likely to irk his audience, but they share an abiding concern with the education system and with individual opportunity.
Indeed, so similar is their rhetoric now that you can play quite a game of Whose Line Is It Anyway? with some of their quotations:
“We have had a skills problem in this country for decades.” (Starmer)
“It is not right that sometimes having a particular surname or accent can make it harder for people to get a job.” (Truss)
“Building a resilient trading economy, not a weak economy exposed to global shocks. That is the route to higher living standards.” (Starmer)
“We simply cannot afford to be a low-growth country… where there are huge divides between different parts of our country.” (Truss)
Starmer says growth will be the “route to higher living standards”. In Truss’s final speech as prime minister, she said one of the benefits of Brexit was the chance to deliver “growth that will lead to more job security, higher wages and greater opportunities for our children”. The fact is, they agree. Growth is the solution not just to our material problems, but to many of our social and moral problems too. Perhaps now is the time for all good Trussites to think about voting Labour.