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4 January 2022

Keir Starmer has a big idea – but he doesn’t seem to want to talk about it

The Labour leader’s decision to reassure voters, rather than to promote his radicalism, is a political risk.

By Stephen Bush

The British economy produces too many bad jobs, grows at a sluggish pace and is contributing to the destruction of our climate. The levers that a Labour government would pull to fix that would be to much more tightly regulate the labour market, to increase trade union power, and to use the UK’s borrowing capacity to invest in new green infrastructure and research projects.

That’s the big economic analysis at the heart of essentially every major announcement and speech by Keir Starmer and his top team, including in his speech today (4 January).

Yet the existence of this analysis would, I think, be a surprise to most people, including those who follow politics closely. Even most of the journalists who have had to cover the more than 200 policy announcements that Starmer’s Labour has made would, I think, struggle to identify it.

Why is this so unclear? Well, as I’ve written before, one problem is that Labour under Starmer has made a dizzyingly large number of policy proposals (that is to say, commitments to do a specific thing about a specific issue) but hasn’t really set out any policy principles (commitments to do a specific thing for a specific reason). “The two-child policy limit on child benefit should be scrapped” is a policy proposal, announced by Starmer’s Labour in 2020. “The two-child limit should be scrapped because childcare is a shared social responsibility that we all, childless or not, have a stake in” is a policy principle. “The two-child limit should be scrapped because everyone should have a minimum standard of living” is another. “The two-child limit should be scrapped because people should be able to have as many children as they damn well please” is yet another.

Now, of course, you might look at those principles and go “well, I hold all of them”, but the reality is that the more we discussed your principles and positions, the more clear it would be whether you were really a “shared social responsibility” type, “a minimum standard of living” person, or a “as many children as they damn well please” one. Policy positions are what ultimately gives a political movement definition: so too is a clear sense of its opponents.

Why isn’t Labour doing more of this? Today’s speech is an improvement on previous ones in that Starmer’s “security, prosperity and respect” represents the leadership’s first attempt to anchor its labour market reforms in some kind of broader political context. 

But I suspect part of the problem is that Labour’s policies on this area – and its broader diagnosis about the country’s ills – are fairly radical, and under Starmer Labour has sought to reassure voters rather than to talk up its radicalism. You can see the appeal: if you want to draw a favourable contrast between the Labour leader and Boris Johnson, “Starmer is sensible and wouldn’t do anything that crazy, Johnson is chaotic and disorganised,” is the easiest one to land because people mostly already think it. 

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However, if you have a big and radical set of reforms to the labour market and you plan to spend £28bn a year on the climate crisis, it is hard to provide yourself and your party with any definition unless you acknowledge that you have a big and radical set of proposals. 

It may be that Labour under Starmer doesn’t need to do this: David Cameron took the Conservatives back into office while very consciously downplaying the radicalism of his proposals, and by presenting himself as a candidate with a high degree of continuity with the era of Tony Blair. If Boris Johnson is still the Conservative leader at the time of the next election, Starmer may similarly find that his best position, politically speaking, is to play up the reassurance and just leave the overarching analysis in the background. But if the age of Johnson gives way to the era of Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Hunt, a different approach may be required.

[See also: Labour may have more to fear from Liz Truss than Rishi Sunak]

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