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7 July 2022

Andrew Fisher: “Keir Starmer is too interested in not being Jeremy Corbyn”

The former Labour policy chief on why the Conservatives could still win.

By Harry Lambert

Andrew Fisher is, in conversation, everything that Jeremy Corbyn, his former boss, is not. As Corbyn’s policy chief from 2015 to 2019, Fisher was the primary architect of Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos. But whereas Corbyn came across in interviews as tetchy, obstinate and ill-informed, Fisher has an open and humble manner. He tempers his statements with qualifiers ( “I think”), but he is sure of what he believes and unafraid to say so. That makes a welcome change from not just Corbyn but from his successor, Keir Starmer, whose fear of alienating anyone often seems to hold him back from saying anything of note.

Today, Fisher is not motivated by intra-party malice: having been a Labour member since 1996, he wants to win with Starmer. His politics were forged in his youth, as the child of a single mother growing up under Thatcher (on the south coast, in Worthing). “I grew up in the Eighties and the Nineties when the Tories were demonising single mothers. I hated the Tories before I liked Labour,” he told me over a light pub lunch on the Thames on 30 June.

[See also: Keir Starmer: If you don’t change your views, you won’t succeed]

The alternatives to Johnson are underwhelming, as many felt John Major to be in 1990. But Major was, Fisher notes, “a safe pair of hands after people had got annoyed with the bombastic Thatcher”; a moderate successor to Johnson could seek to sell themselves in the same way. “The Tories are very good at changing in power. They’ve done it consistently since 2010. They could do it a fourth time.”

Fisher is not reassured by Labour’s recent by-election victory in Wakefield. “Labour’s share of the vote was lower than it was in 2017, and 2017 wasn’t good enough to win.” The Tory vote, he added, collapsed by 17 percentage points (relative to 2019), but Labour’s only rose by eight. It is difficult to find much evidence, in either the data or in real life, that many voters are excited by Starmer’s leadership of Labour.

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We met in the days after Starmer told the New Statesman’s Politics Live conference that Labour is putting the 2019 manifesto “to one side” as it seeks to define itself. “You’re wiping the slate clean, but what are you writing on it?” Fisher asked in response when we spoke. Starmer, he argued, won the party leadership in 2020 by selling himself as “Corbyn but more professional”, and also described the 2017 manifesto as a “foundational document” at the time.

Starmer has since tacked away from both manifestos, but it is unclear where he is tacking to. “The thing that should be worrying Starmer,” Fisher told me, “is a Lynton Crosby phrase: ‘You can’t fatten the pig on market day. You have to prepare the ground.’ He doesn’t have to be coming out with reams of policy, but he does have to be doing the framing argument, and he’s not doing that, and that worries me.”

In the two years leading up to the 2017 election, Fisher said, Corbyn offered “a consistent argument: austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity. Everything we were arguing fitted under that quite neatly – public ownership not private profit, redistributive taxation.” Labour proposed renationalising rail, energy, water, and Royal Mail in 2017, while calling for a rise in corporation tax and higher taxes on the top 5 per cent of income taxpayers (a policy Fisher expects Starmer to drop, although, “I don’t know why, because it’s not going to win him any votes”).

Those 2017 policies followed from Corbyn’s opposition to austerity, and were captured by a slogan adapted from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (and popularised by New Labour): “For the many, not the few.” Whatever you thought of them, those ideas were simple and coherent: they set a direction and allowed anyone to explain the party’s plans in a few lines.

[See also: Leader: Boris Johnson’s departure alone is not enough]

It is difficult to do that for today’s Labour Party. Its economic agenda is unclear: is it on the left or right? Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, has taken to attacking the Tories for being “high-tax”, but that approach is hamstringing Labour. Last year, Rishi Sunak raised corporation tax, as Corbyn had called for (“we said 26 per cent, he’s gone up to 25”, said Fisher), but Labour under Starmer opposed the increase in a bid to appear friendly to business – a tactic Fisher is bewildered by.

“Taxing corporations who have lots of money is a good thing. Putting the burden on working people,” as the Tories have done by increasing National Insurance, “is a bad thing. That’s a really nice distinction to make,” said Fisher. But Labour is terrified of differentiating between better and worse taxes. “They are more interested in not being Corbyn than in winning an argument.”

Fisher credits Starmer with one good phrase: “I want Britain to be the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in.” He thinks that line could have encapsulated Labour’s offer on everything from social care and childcare to housing. But it did not last. “I think that’s a beautiful phrase, and they just killed it. I think the last time he uttered that was in 2020.”

In 2017 support for Labour under Corbyn surged improbably, leaping from 25 per cent to 40 per cent in seven weeks. Fisher credits the party’s policies, and Corbyn’s brief popularity. “In 2017 [his critics] hadn’t found the thing that would kill him off, or do him a lot of damage,” Fisher told me, alluding to Corbyn’s failure to root out anti-Semitism within his party, an issue over which has he has since lost the Labour whip.

Corbyn has few defenders today, although Fisher offers an explanation for his former boss’s equivocation over Brexit, the other issue that buried Labour in 2019. “He was a genuine Eurosceptic: he was not anti, he was sceptical. He didn’t like the neoliberal turn in the 90s.” In 2019, Brexit “wasn’t something he felt passionately about either way”, which satisfied no one in a polarised electorate. He stood in the middle of the road, and “in 2019 we got run over”, Fisher conceded.

Corbyn is finished. But the economic ambition of Corbynism may have lit a path to power for Labour. “I think on the economics we were right, and the polling always backed that,” Fisher said. He thinks the arguments Labour put forth in 2017 would only be stronger today, as inflation and the cost of living rise and strikes threaten to bring parts of Britain to a halt. “The material basis that explained why Corbyn won the leadership in 2015, and Labour advanced in 2017,” said Fisher, “hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s strengthened. I think that’s Keir’s problem. We’re in radical times, and he’s trying to veer away from that.”

Finally, I ask Fisher how Labour should handle the fraught issue of gender recognition and sex-based rights: something that eclipses economic questions for many on the modern left. The fight for trans rights is, Fisher said, “not a complete equivalent” to the fight for gay rights – “it’s more complicated” – and he defers to the recent decisions by international sporting bodies on the balance between inclusion and fairness in female sport. Labour backed the policy of gender self-identification in 2017 and 2019, but Fisher also sees the need for regulation in certain settings, giving the identification of sex offenders in prison as an example.

“You’ve got to unite people around something,” Fisher told me in conclusion. “Nobody is suggesting that Labour should run an election campaign based on arguing for trans rights. It doesn’t mean you don’t try and argue for it. But it’s not the priority. It’s not the headline thing.”

[See also: The last days of Boris Johnson]

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson