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14 May 2024

Starmerism is not at war with Blairism

A focus on serving working people is the golden thread that connects Keir Starmer’s Labour and Tony Blair’s.

By Josh Simons

One thing that defines Keir Starmer is an aversion to navel-gazing. At present, journalists introspecting on Labour’s behalf seem captured by the idea that Starmerism is a repudiation of Blairism. As the director of a “Starmerite” think tank, I think that idea is misguided and self-defeating. It gets New Labour wrong and it gets Keir Starmer’s Labour wrong.

New Labour was about bringing Labour back to working people. Philip Gould was its architect in spirit and temperament. He and his colleagues made Labour reckon with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. This ensured the party lived and breathed the hopes and values of ordinary people.

Tony Blair remains Labour’s most electorally successful leader – something that still needs saying surprisingly often. But he also delivered for working people – Sure Start, the minimum wage, lower NHS waiting lists, reduced antisocial behaviour, better schools and higher economic growth. Those interested in change can study no better project than New Labour.

Yet much has changed since New Labour’s project was forged in the 1990s. Two things in particular.

First, the electorate. British voters are much, much more volatile. They have less allegiance to any party and are more willing to change who they vote for over short periods of time. That is why Labour has gone from its worst election defeat since 1935 to a 20-point poll lead in just three years.

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Voters are also much more apathetic. Their trust in politicians and government is diminished, and they are less likely to support democracy. In Britain as around the world, measures of confidence, trust and faith in politicians, government and democracy are at record lows. The voters who swing elections, Stevenage Woman and Workington Man, as we call them at Labour Together, are the most disengaged and financially insecure in the electorate.

This has a few important consequences. For one, Labour’s agenda must reckon with widespread cynicism and distrust: looking to the future but without becoming detached from ordinary lives. People need to see that voting can bring material improvements to their lives. Governments must make voters feel better off within an electoral cycle, or they will be quickly dispatched.

This produces huge tensions between the short and the long term. President Joe Biden has delivered the most significant long-term transformation in the US economy for a generation. Yet voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona or North Carolina do not necessarily feel better off. That places his re-election at risk. Yet the alternative would be risky too: delivering short-term tax cuts or pay rises at the expense of a long-term growth strategy.

The second thing that has changed is the forces shaping history. Most importantly, we are shifting from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Security is straining international cooperation. At the same time, the imperative of international commerce continues to drive the flow of goods, services and, notably, dollars. We are also in the middle of the greatest technological shift in a century, undertaking the biggest energy transition in human history, and our society is ageing rapidly.

These forces affect everything: growth, industrial strategy, skills, migration, education and health. And they have brutal consequences for policy. The UK government has less capacity to improve the fate of its citizens than at any moment in recent history. Most of what shapes material well-being, the nation’s finances, the quality of public services, and productivity is beyond the government’s control. It may always have been so, but it is especially so today.

This makes Starmerism a paradox – in part, it’s about the death of the ism. As someone sceptical of -ites and -isms, I have always felt labels such as Blue Labour or New Labour, old right or soft left often obscure woolly political thinking, substituting for the hard work of understanding the electorate and the country’s problems. Yet Keir Starmer’s visible resistance to the idea of “Starmerism” is about something deeper.

It is an aversion to anything that might distract from a ruthless focus on the experience of working people. Beating populists requires always, always starting where voters are – not because it’s good politics, but because voters know what they are talking about. And directing technocrats requires an obsession with delivering for working people – making sure policy is designed so its impact is felt by people as well as observed in data.

Now more than ever, it is imperative to ensure voters feel the impact of reform within the rhythm of electoral cycles.

This drives important shifts in Labour’s agenda. The most important is its political economy. New Labour’s economic policy goal was to increase aggregate GDP growth. The theory was that a wealthy nation can buy what it wants (not so easy when the pound is weak against the dollar) and redistribute the proceeds of growth to places and people who did not directly benefit. In practise, swathes of the country saw little increase in productivity or wages, high streets became devoid of economic or social life, and the gap tax credits were supposed to fill became so large it was fiscally unsustainable.

Today, Labour’s economic approach is different. Like then, it is built on the bedrock of fiscal credibility. But it focuses on productivity growth across the country and the economic circumstances of households. These closely track GDP growth but they are not reducible to it. Now, Labour is clear about the need for an active state to address constraints on growth: low investment and big gaps in skills and technical education. It intends to reshape markets to build national resilience and future prosperity. Being pro-competition and pro-capitalism also means being pro-government.

There are other differences too. On migration, Labour now seeks to build a migration system that benefits working people. It recognises that expert consensus has evolved, for instance on the impact of high net migration on housing. On technology, Labour is optimistic about its potential to improve public services. But it is sceptical that technology is neutral and conscious of the need to proactively and intentionally shape how and where it’s adopted. On place, Labour is now more focused on the public goods and spaces that bring people together in an age when social media can all too easily drive them apart.

A focus on serving working people defines Keir Starmer’s Labour. This means the party today is not anti-Blair. Only Jeremy Corbyn acolytes would have the introspective arrogance to define their politics against Labour’s most successful project. But Labour today is post-Blair.

We should not be surprised. Perhaps New Labour would look a little like Labour today had its protagonists had to defeat populists such as Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson.

[See also: What is Starmerism?]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink