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25 March 2023

The cracks in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party

The shadow cabinet is split between the “Ming vasers” and “front-footers".

By Rachel Wearmouth

When the dual disaster of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss torpedoed the Conservatives’ poll ratings, politics switched to easy mode for the opposition.

Labour insiders always knew the dramatic shift in public opinion towards their party would not last forever. But now Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have returned much-needed calm to the Tory benches, Labour jitters have begun to set in. “It’s looking increasingly like 1992, rather than 1997,” said one frontbencher of Keir Starmer’s prospects at the next election, despite Labour commanding a 20-point lead in the polls.

It was last week’s Budget, in which Hunt backed a £4bn expansion of free childcare, that alerted minds in the party. Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, is intent on making childcare a central plank of Labour’s electoral offer. While she may outflank the Tories by the next election, opposition MPs are now worried that the Tories will copy Labour at every turn, and reduce the general election debate to an argument about which taxes Labour may put up.

“Voters being offered a choice between two technocrats would be a disaster for us,” the same frontbencher added. “Because Sunak will have a record and the whole weight of the government machine.”

[See also: The triumph of corporate newspeak]

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Roy Jenkins once described Tony Blair’s task in returning Labour to power in 1997 akin to that of “a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor”.

Starmer’s team is said to be divided between “Ming vasers”, who advocate strict fiscal discipline and protecting Labour’s lead on the economy (something not consistently achieved by Gordon Brown in the run-up to the 1997 election), and those who wish the party to be more radical and combative in making a case for how Keynesian spending can grow the economy.

The latter “front-footers” believe Labour should learn lessons from the so-called global realignment that has seen centre-left parties across the world, including Germany’s SPD, Australian Labor and the US Democrats, winning mandates to spend big on public service reform and infrastructure in the wake of Covid and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

They complain that strategists are too focused on Labour’s “hero voters” – former supporters who backed Brexit and then the Tories in 2019 – and believe the party must build a broader coalition. MPs’ attempts to make the political weather are, it is said, “eaten by the grid” enforced by the media team, and there is an over-reliance on focus groups. This faction is also frustrated that Pat McFadden, who as the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury is the party’s spending watchdog, rejects ideas that come with a price tag.

[See also: Keir Starmer needs to privatise the railways]

The counter-argument, according to “Ming vasers”, is that Labour cannot embark on the policy equivalent of drink-driving when the economy is fragile, and that deviating from a strategy that is delivering results could upset the campaign. The more cautious members of the shadow cabinet believe that reining in spending plans maintains public credibility, and allows Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, to be flexible should the economic picture change before voters go to the polls.

The key to success, in their eyes, is to be stable: pin the cost-of-living crisis on the government and hammer the Reagan Question – “after 13 years of Tory government, do you feel better off?” – before setting out a policy agenda for the election. “There is no need to rush it,” said one source. “Nobody needs to panic.”

Reeves, it is argued, has already made large spending commitments, such as with the £28bn-a-year climate change spending pledge – a proposal her allies underline will amount to £280bn of investment should Labour be in power for ten years. They want Labour MPs to focus on being more creative in selling the policy’s merits, which include the vast potential for job creation.

Opponents to Starmer’s approach are increasingly bullish, believing the current strategy to be a gamble. Their argument is that Labour can afford to be bolder, including on Brexit, when polls show a majority of voters now believe leaving the EU was a mistake, and that the government is failing to control immigration. “It’s like jiu jitsu: you lean into your opponent’s strength and use it against them,” one MP said.

Pressure to change tack does not come solely from inside the Commons, either. The London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been urging Starmer to back rejoining the EU single market.

A speech by the Labour First Minister in Wales, Mark Drakeford, earlier this month also contained some startling interventions. He challenged the party leadership on electoral reform, calling first past the post a “system which time and time again produces Conservative majorities on a minority of the votes cast”. Many Labour centrists in the Parliamentary Labour Party staunchly oppose electoral reform and, though the party’s membership is strongly in favour of proportional representation, it is not expected to be in the next manifesto.

Drakeford, whose party has held the Senedd since the first devolved Welsh election in 1999, also told the conference in Llandudno, north Wales, that “the older I get the more radical I become”, and that “this party’s mission is not just to tinker at the edges, not to offer some mild amelioration but to eradicate poverty, to tackle inequality and to do that with the urgency that those people who rely on this party look for”.

“He was talking to the audience but he might as well have been directly speaking to Keir,” said one MP.

Starmer’s Labour does not lack a radical edge. Ambitious targets to cut crime and achieve the highest sustained growth in the G7 signal systemic change. A promised “take back control” bill would overhaul devolution and hand extra economic powers to local communities. Angela Rayner’s workers’ rights package, which includes banning zero-hours contracts, day-one employment rights, and, crucially, fair pay agreements that set wage floors in key sectors, has been welcomed after a decade of pushback against organised labour.

The poll chasm between Labour and the Conservatives indicates Starmer is on course to win power. But the next election may be more than a year away, and that’s a long time to be carrying a precious vessel.

[See also: Where did it go wrong for Nicola Sturgeon?]

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