Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
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.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

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?

Content from our partners
Why competition is the key to customer satisfaction
High streets remain vitally important to local communities
The future of gas

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?]