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15 May 2024

Keir Starmer’s real mission: to overhaul how government works

Once in power, Labour’s challenge will be to build a system that functions differently enough for voters to notice.

By Andrew Marr

Rarely has the gap between Westminster politics and normal voters seemed bigger. In the Commons, throbbing overexcitement about the defection of Natalie Elphicke, the notably right-wing Conservative MP, to Labour; across the country, I fear, the same old weary scepticism about the whole lot of them.

Despair about the possibility of politics transforming daily life is the atmospheric difference between the mid-2020s and the early 1990s, when Blairism took shape. Today, national cynicism frustrates Tory ministers talking up economic recovery, but it will, in government, become Labour’s problem.

After the 2007-08 crash, the degradation of austerity, the deceit and exaggeration of Brexit, the profound disruption of the pandemic, Truss, Ukraine-driven inflation and Tory internal wars, much of Britain has tuned out and doesn’t believe Westminster will, or can, help them. Five years after Boris Johnson promised to “repay the trust of the British people”, polling by YouGov for Sky found that the number of voters saying they “almost never” trust the British government to place the needs of the nation above the interests of its own party has nearly doubled, from 26 per cent to 49 per cent.

It isn’t a Conservative problem: pollsters also report that 40 per cent find “little difference” between Labour and the Conservatives; just 12 per cent think there is “a great deal of difference” between the bigger parties.

That gestures to the obvious problem with the Elphicke defection. If it encourages pro-Brexit, anti-immigrant voters to think again about Labour, it also turbo-charges “they’re all the same” cynicism while diminishing Keir Starmer’s reputation for offering a fresh tone in politics.

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That was a Westminster story. The much bigger story is the broken relationship between central government and the electorate. Our politics are stuck, with a listless, decaying scent in the air. The Conservatives, far behind in the polls, trudge grimly towards the autumn abattoir. But this gives a rare opportunity for Labour to think harder about how it might behave in government: David Miliband, on a recent trip back from New York, told me he thought this was Labour’s “precious moment”, not to be wasted.

The Labour high command agrees. Keir Starmer is being given presentations which assume that he is in government in 2028 ahead of the next election and reflecting on what he failed to achieve. Around him, aides are focused on that all-important delivery agenda. One internal paper emphasises that disengaged, disillusioned and struggling voters “don’t just feel let down – they have been let down” and asks why they should trust any politicians.

The challenge Starmer faces is to turn his “mission-focused” thinking into a government that acts differently enough for voters to notice. Marc Stears, the political scientist who directs the UCL Policy Lab (which was recently profiled by my colleague George Eaton), says a Labour government must change the way it works so that it is “more respectful of people and the places where they live”.

The big think tanks, although they are in competition, are largely moving in a singular direction. Josh Simons, the leader of Labour Together, has an article in this week’s New Statesman emphasising his continuity with Blairism; Carys Roberts at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the Resolution Foundation and the UCL Policy Lab are all focusing in different ways on that lethal credibility gap between government and daily life.

It is easy to agree that Whitehall remains distrustful of other power centres, overzealous of its own importance, centralised and inclined to horde. What is much harder is to explain how to overcome this ancient instinct in the British state.

One of the answers must be still more regional devolution, building on one of the few genuine achievements of the Tory years. Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands have begun to show how much energy and change can be released by local leadership. This is what Starmer promised at the beginning of the year in his “Take Back Control Bill” speech: “We will… devolve new powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and how councils run their finances, and will give communities a new right to request powers which go beyond even that.”

Yet empowering communities and voters must start with Whitehall. The UCL Policy Lab recently held a conference in east London under the banner “Britain Renewed: how a government that respects everyone could change our country.” It focused in part on how to avoid calamities such as the Post Office Horizon scandal – and there are many examples of centralised governments screwing up because they trusted computer systems before actual citizens, or failed to listen. But this moves beyond prevention towards what Starmer describes as a “wholly new” form of government needed to deliver his missions.

As an observer, my prejudice is that quantities of soft, woolly verbiage about political reform rarely produce anything normal folk will notice. So, it was interesting to talk to one of the speakers, Tara McGuinness, who worked as a senior Biden adviser in the White House and in the US Office of Management and Budget on just this agenda. The crucial thing, she argues, is that social democratic governments must stop thinking about themselves – status, polling, the news cycle – and start to focus on the customer experience of citizens.

This was the subject of a Biden presidential executive order, but what does it mean in practice? McGuinness cites a new “direct file” tax system which makes negotiating the famously terrifying IRS tax jungle much easier for most taxpayers; helping low-income couples starting a family secure benefits for healthcare, food, affordable childcare and early years education; and assisting people in their sixties understand the financial choices about when they choose to retire.

Those are American examples. Britain has its own tradition of thinking about a better, less centralised and more human welfare agenda, led by people such as Hilary Cottam, author of Radical Help, who has worked on stronger adolescent support, for instance, and who also spoke at the Policy Lab conference.

In a British context, the flip in thinking might mean reform of the NHS, beginning not with hospitals but with the experience of trying to access GPs, or locally driven wraparound help for struggling young families. In a way, the biggest shift required is the mental one of ministers and civil servants trying to put themselves in the place of those whose lives their policies affect. But to change Whitehall’s behaviour is a hugely complex task, on which Sue Gray, Peter Hyman and other members of the inner Starmer team are working.

They have models, at least, in the social exclusion task force of 1997-2010, the rough sleepers initiatives from the 1990s or Kate Bingham’s 2020 vaccine roll-out under Johnson. In each case, Whitehall had to prove itself porous enough to bring in the relevant social entrepreneurs and businesspeople with outside experience to work in interdisciplinary teams with civil servants. As one of those involved tells me, “it’s also about getting the right money to the right places, and that isn’t always easy”.

Indeed: none of this is easy, and it can sound a bit arid. But this work going on below the surface is vastly more important than the theatrics of a Tory MP’s defection. The latter is the cartwheeling media agenda of SW1. I’m not sure how many people even notice.

The job of making government better, however, will demonstrate whether a Starmer No 10 looks back from that vantage point of early 2028 with pride and confidence in solid achievement or proves a sad failure, generating only more cynicism in the lengthening British story of disillusion with politics itself.  

[See also: What Keir Starmer can learn from John Smith]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink