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11 August 2022

As Gordon Brown intervenes, where is Keir Starmer?

Labour’s ambition to be seen as an alternative government hinges on its response to the cost-of-living crisis.

By Freddie Hayward

Will the real leader of the opposition please stand up? That is the question that Keir Starmer’s detractors are asking after the Labour leader was yesterday (10 August) upstaged by Gordon Brown on the cost-of-living crisis. The former prime minister has called for the government to suspend the increases to the energy price cap, ready the Universal Credit system to help those on benefits, and encourage energy companies to reduce their prices – and if all that doesn’t work, to temporarily nationalise them. Meanwhile, Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, are on holiday.

It’s not unusual for politicians to be criticised for going on holiday, and normally it doesn’t stick. But the official absence of Starmer and Reeves right now adheres to the growing sense that Labour’s response to the cost-of-living crisis has been inadequate. As ever for a party in opposition, Labour has struggled to get attention over the summer. The railway strikes and the Conservative leadership contest have overshadowed its attempt to set out a vision for the country. Starmer’s recent speech on economic growth, for instance, barely registered with much of the media, partly due to a muddle over the party’s policy on nationalisation.

[See also: Does Keir Starmer’s plan to freeze energy bills go far enough?]

One shadow cabinet minister is worried that voters remain unclear about Labour’s plans on the economy. “People are still a bit confused by Labour and still trying to work out what kind of party we are,” they said. “And we’re not necessarily making it that easy for them.”

“If you say that Labour’s priorities are growth, growth, growth [as Starmer did in his speech], I’m not sure lots of people know what that really means,” they continued. However, the shadow minister thinks it’s a “fixable problem because once we’ve got a clear package [on the cost of living], it will kind of override everything else.”

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Even though Starmer and Reeves are on holiday, I’m told they have, in fact, been working on a package this week. “I know that Keir and Rachel are actively working on [it],” one Labour source told me. Another said Reeves was “meant to be on holiday but she doesn’t seem to be resting much – she’s signing stuff off quickly”.

Labour’s ambition to be seen as a strong alternative to the government relies on its response to the cost-of-living crisis. This is not a short-term problem: energy prices are set to exceed £4,000 next year and the economy is poised to go into a recession. Starmer’s life will be much easier for the next few months if he quickly announces a policy that matches the scale of the problem.

[See also: We need to take back control of the energy industry – here’s how]

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