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23 September 2021updated 27 Sep 2021 10:42am

Keir Starmer needs to be clear about who his project’s enemies are

The Labour leader should outline the obstacles to achieving his “contribution society”.

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer has written a 35-page essay  setting out his political vision and the broad outlines of the Britain he’d like to build. The big idea is the so-called “contribution society”, laid out in what is, in essence, a trailer for his conference speech next week in Brighton.

As is typical of Starmer’s approach, much of the vision is reminiscent of Ed Miliband’s: capitalism should be reformed, not removed; the climate crisis is the biggest challenge facing our country and species; and what Miliband called “the British dream” – that “hard work should pay” – no longer exists.

How does it differ from Miliband’s approach? There is one important difference in tone, which has something to do with age. Starmer, at 59, was born at the end of the postwar baby boom and is probably the last baby boomer who will lead a major British political party. Though he has warned Labour against wallowing in “sepia-tinged nostalgia” for its past, a core part of Starmer’s essay is based on his belief that the opportunities that were afforded to him are increasingly unavailable to a child of his background and upbringing today. Those who, like his parents, “work with their hands” now face insecure work – those who, like him, go on to university, face insecure living conditions and high costs.

The other difference that sets Starmer apart from Miliband is the way he talks about business. The essay is warmer towards business than anything Miliband ever said. Whether that represents an ideological difference between Starmerism and Milbandism is up for debate: it could simply be that a growing number of businesses are saying and doing Miliband-y things, and that, with British businesses in particular chafing against the consequences of Brexit and other government policies, Starmer is simply trying to seize an opportunity that wasn’t available to Miliband.

What Starmer wants is for every policy announcement to be framed around the “contribution society”, and for the concept to provide a definition to his leadership that has so far been lacking.

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What is missing from the pamphlet is a sense of who this society’s enemies are. We don’t, as far as Starmer is concerned, live in a “contribution society” in 2021. Are its opponents solely the Conservatives and austerity measures, or are there opponents also in businesses or in households?

An important part of defining a political project is describing what it’s for, and you can see how Starmer’s “contribution society” helps Labour do that. Given the state of the British energy and labour markets at the moment, you can also see how his riffs on unrewarded workers and on the cost of living will get a boost in the coming weeks and months. But another part of describing a political project is setting out what it is against, who and what is out of that society’s bounds and who stands in the way of its creation. That will have to form part of Starmer’s conference speech just as surely as policy detail will.

[see also: Can Keir Starmer break Labour’s losing streak?]

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