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12 October 2023

Keir Starmer has shown he is no Blairite

The Labour leader’s invocation of class and state intervention set him apart from the politics of the 1990s.

By Lewis Goodall

One of the most important things to understand about British politics and how it’s conceived and covered is that the churn on the political side is much faster than in journalism. Look at any of the people either on the political stage or who assist in the wings; with very few exceptions you’ll find the cast has changed several times over as electoral cycles come and go. Their audience, or rather the critics in the media, tend to be more unchanging: in newspapers and broadcasting, careers are longer.

This is one of the reasons the framing of politics is often repetitive, even when events are not. Though history can be a guide, it does not provide an exhaustive list of how either politics or its practitioners can be understood. Often, those who read political skies use old constellations, impose outdated patterns on stars which have clearly moved or been replaced. As such, much of the analysis of Keir Starmer and his Labour leadership employs old, unwieldy narratives. The most hackneyed is that his leadership mirrors that of Tony Blair – that his politics is one of gradual movement from the soft left to the centre and beyond.

Though there may be glimmers of truth in such a reading, and Blair personally has become an influential figure, Starmer’s speech at the Labour Party conference this week and that of his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, reminds us why that analysis is fundamentally flawed. His words and promises prove that he is a politician firmly of his own time, occupying a place in a political reality which has shifted far from the 1990s – even if some of those who comment on it have not. Listen to what was on offer in Liverpool this week and it was not an ersatz Blairism.

Starmer and Reeves are not thrilling politicians and it’s partly this which creates a misunderstanding. In their oratory and deeds they rarely set the pulse racing a little faster, nor wear any radicalism on their sleeves. This is under-appreciated; it’s precisely because they can appear boring that radicalism can be obscured. Often they’re more progressive than they sound. It’s the mirror image of the way much of Corbyn’s boiler-plate social democracy, certainly in domestic policy, was less radical than it seemed. In a political ecosystem such as Britain’s which remains fundamentally inimical to many left-of-centre ideas, this is an advantage. That is especially the case when, despite all of the talk being of the Labour leadership needing to “inspire” or attract, half the battle is to ensure they do not repel. A key part of any Starmer victory will be ensuring enough Conservative voters don’t “fear” him.

[See also: New polling confirms Labour is now the party of business]

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But get beyond the monotone cadences and muted tones, and you realise it is impossible to imagine Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Hunt, the delivering the sorts of speeches that Starmer and Reeves delivered this week. A publicly-owned energy company, nationalised railways, Reeves declaring that “globalisation, as we once knew it, is dead”, repeated talk of industrial strategy, a commitment to billions in green investment. Recent Conservative or late-era Blair, this is not. In its quiet communitarianism and louder corporatism, it is a spirit more redolent of the Wilson-Callaghan years.

There is another sense in which Starmerism represents something older than our collective memories allow: the ease with which he and his shadow cabinet ministers talk of class. Starmer’s speech was explicitly and implicitly aimed at working-class people. In its own subtle way, it framed Starmer, as close to an embodiment of the British state as it’s possible to get, as an outsider, someone looking in over “the walls of Westminster”. His shadow ministers, Wes Streeting, Bridget Phillipson, Angela Rayner, readily invoke their own working-class credentials, and why not? But it’s a register of politics we have not heard for a long time, let alone in the Blair years, when Labour was desperate to appear as bourgeois as possible. For all the talk of his north London credentials, in many ways Starmer is deeply, recognisably provincially English and proud of it, another way in which he’s more reassuring than some of his views might suggest.

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In a way too few conceive, partly because it doesn’t much use the primary colours of what came before, Starmer’s leadership is born of an age where the ideas of the left have been reinvigorated. We are more comfortable with state intervention, more suspicious of markets. It runs through Starmer’s language and thinking. The public yearns for public services that are strong and for the government to make them so. It is perhaps here where Starmerism hits its most hollow and bittersweet note. For it comes at precisely the time when the state’s capacity to deliver strong public services is weakest. Starmer’s basic diagnosis is that the public realm is enfeebled, but that the state has no capacity to turn the spending taps on quickly; it is a diagnosis without a prescription. As I’ve written before for the New Statesman, Labour’s basic task since 2010 has been to work out a credible prospectus for how to do social democracy in an era of relative scarcity. In many regards, despite the more radical flexes Labour leadership makes, it still hasn’t done so. Starmer and Reeves’s basic approach is to head for supply side reform, try and get as much growth as possible and hope for the best.

It is probably, though not certainly, a forlorn strategy. Even if the UK economy were to return to trend or above-trend growth in the years to come, the increased demands on the state would mean there would still be less money to go around than needed. Unlike Blair, Starmer must govern at a time when the winds will almost never be at his back. The seas ahead are rough and it isn’t hard to imagine a Starmer government on the rocks, quickly. With growth likely to remain limp, a desperately poor inheritance, turbulent geopolitics, and a deepening culture war with an ever more radicalised Conservative Party in opposition, the task will be backbreaking. Those around Starmer know how difficult things might become, and how much more steel he might have to show.

The sun shone along the Mersey this week. Labour enjoyed its most successful conference in years – a canister of glitter aside, entirely disruption-free. All the more impressive given the shadows engulfing the Middle East, a darkness that so easily would have covered the conference centre only a few years ago. Labour and Starmer should enjoy their success. This is probably as good as it gets.

[See also: It’s Rachel Reeves’s party now]

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