New Times,
New Thinking.

What Keir Starmer needs to tell Britain

To win big in the general election, the Labour leader must offer a vision that raises the country’s heart rate.

By Andrew Marr

“My first six steps…” to where? The direction was, to be fair, mapped out in February 2023 with the launch of Keir Starmer’s five missions. But nobody normal reads mission documents. Now that the general election campaign has been jump-started many months early, on 16 May Starmer unveiled half a dozen key pledges on the economy, NHS waiting times, border security, state-owned energy and teacher recruitment. What’s missing on the Labour side, though, is the gap between granular policy delivery – the most important thing in actual government – and the short-term “campaigning tool” of the moderate six steps.

In that gap between instruction manual and functioning device is where we would expect clear, hopefully inspiring, words about the different country Labour now wishes to create; the “onwards-and-upwards” vision; the “what’s it all for?” that cannot be broken down into bullet points. There is a strong argument that, in these beaten-down and degraded days, we don’t need a vision – all we need is monosyllabic competence. And certainly, we have had enough of deluded and empty boosterism. But political parties don’t win big without raising the country’s heart rate.

The polls remain extraordinary for Labour. But the rest of this year, into the election proper, is not going to be a breezy or conflict-free amble. At the beginning of 2024 I argued here that part of the story of the year would be slow but visible economic recovery, and that pessimism about interest rates and inflation or “talking Britain down” would be a mistake for Labour. So, I think, it is proving.

I also said that I thought the polls would narrow (which I still believe), and that “there will be a personalised struggle about tax-and-spend between two parties whose macro-economic positioning is relatively similar.” This spring is certainly the moment to look again at that.

The first of Starmer’s six steps, the priority above the other priorities – which are all, please note, above the rest of the priorities – is “deliver economic stability”. This underlines in thick black ink Rachel Reeves’ fiscal rules, which mean tight public spending restraint and no widespread tax rises.

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For the Conservatives, it is all incredible and intolerable, which was why Jeremy Hunt devoted a speech on 17 May to attacking the idea, and released a dossier saying Labour had a £38bn “black hole” in its costings and would have to increase tax. Any slim chance of the Tories avoiding a catastrophic election result depends on voters believing that Starmer and Reeves would certainly raise taxes.

It is true that, from the Green Prosperity Plan through to breakfast clubs in schools, extra scanners for the NHS and the cost of ending outsourcing of government contracts to private companies with bad employment policies, Labour would spend more; though it has already identified taxes on private schools and non-doms to fund some of this.

The real question is how much of the gap would be funded by actual tax rises and how much by what we might call the “disappointment tax” – the delaying or watering down of public spending. Meanwhile, of course, Labour has its own pre-emptive attack on Tory economics, centred on the alleged £46bn unfunded promise to abolish individual national insurance contributions.

The truth, so far as I can get to it, is that both the Tories and Labour are making unrealistic assumptions about the next five years, which both parties would be unable to meet. Labour will rebuild and restore our public services – something desperately needed – without any more money except from accelerated growth. The Tories will cut taxes to create growth without finally reducing the public realm to brick-dust. I don’t buy either of those prospectuses.

Hunt’s complaint about Reeves attacking him over higher borrowing and taxation without mentioning that so much of it went to support individuals and businesses during Covid and the Ukraine-war-driven inflation shock is a reasonable one; as he tweeted: “First parliament on record where we shut down the economy to stave off a pandemic, then faced a global energy price shock almost immediately after. Think that might have had something to do with it.”

In those circumstances, what would a Labour government have done? It wouldn’t have had the Truss experiment, of course; and we must hope it wouldn’t have handed Covid contracts to its personal friends, squandering huge quantities of public money. But it would surely have supported families unable to pay their energy bills and tried to keep businesses afloat during lockdowns in much the same way.

But if that is where Hunt on Reeves lands a blow, here is where he doesn’t. In all honesty, observing the shadow chancellor and her steely, increasingly authoritative enforcer Pat McFadden (I expect him to be one of the big stars of a future Labour government, partly because he will thank me so little for saying it), this is not a pair I would go to, however desperate, to borrow a used fiver from. I don’t think I’d try to cadge a toffee.

There will be horrendously difficult choices ahead. I’m optimistic that the more benign interest rate outlook and a potential extension of the time-period governed by the fiscal rules from five to ten years will allow more borrowing over time; but Reeves and McFadden is not a combo likely to put up taxes except in a position of extreme crisis.

It is at this point in the argument that the original question, “six steps to where?”, becomes inescapable. These steps were shrewdly chosen to answer the yearnings of middle-Britain voters: the yearning for stability, which indeed feels radical, given the past few years; the yearning for safer streets; more teachers; shorter waiting lists, more secure borders and energy. The punchier parts of current Labour policy, such as tearing up the planning system to allow more building and onshore wind farms, or decent rights for exploited workers, are left for the small print.

Taken by themselves, the first steps feel like an attempt to return politics to mundane competence so governance recedes to a background hum rather than exhausting cacophony. To that extent, it isn’t hugely different from the instincts of One Nation Conservatism; centrist Tories can be forgiven a squirm of irritation in seeing their clothes so smoothly and tightly stolen and repurposed.

But of course, this can never be enough for a party of the centre left. Why not? Because in the end One Nationism exists to protect the interests of the well-doing, well-meaning, ever so slightly smug English middle classes. It is for people who wear corduroys. It has never been a disruptive or challenging philosophy; and apart from the housebuilding record of the postwar Macmillan government, it has brought little economic or social advance for the have-nots. One Nationism has also been blandly, comfortably, tolerant of the excesses and corruption of big business and the very rich.

Team Starmer points to the more radical parts of the missions as evidence that his project goes well beyond One Nationism: the green industrial programme; the devolutionary agenda; breaking the “class ceiling” in state education; housebuilding and new towns for the “grey belt”; the part-renationalisation of rail; and an extension of trade unionism. (The workers’ rights agenda is currently being less diluted than many feared, though vigilance will always be required, and the small-business lobbying is becoming intense.)

But winning an election is about changing people’s perceptions. If you don’t campaign on the more radical parts of your policy agenda and retreat to relatively safe middle-ground nostrums, then even in a period when “stability” sounds radical you leave the most conservative instincts of our public culture untouched. That, in due course, will limit you in power and raise barriers to progress. In short, don’t swerve arguments, embrace them. And in any case, the British press will plunge into these arguments whatever you do. Since this is addressed mainly to the right of the Labour Party, it’s worth recalling that there was nothing the younger Tony Blair enjoyed more than winning an argument.

Labour needs to go beyond the critique which simply says that the Tories messed up, and to paint a picture of where the party wishes to take us. The most urgent and compelling recent example was Gordon Brown’s intervention on child poverty. Absolute poverty among children in the UK has risen to its highest rate for 30 years; this is more a problem of low wages than of unemployment these days, and what we might call a Brownian motion has come up with an ingenious proposal to fund better benefits to rescue at least some of “austerity’s children”.

The immediate issue is the two-child Universal Credit cap, introduced by the Conservatives in 2017. The End Child Poverty coalition says that removing it would take 250,000 children out of poverty. Labour politicians I talk to all say they “hate” or “loathe” the cap; but challenged about it, they reply with words like those used by Wes Streeting when asked about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s anti-cap argument: “That’s not a commitment I’m able to make today.”

When we ask ourselves about the purpose of a Labour government, a big intervention by Starmer, or indeed Reeves or McFadden, on child poverty in Britain, looking hard at the case made by Brown and responding in a way that gives some hope, is surely a no-brainer – and the kind of thing that plugs the gap between “first steps” and dense “missions”.

Another area that needs the embrace of argument is the heating planet. Somehow, between the oppositionist antics of Just Stop Oil and the Big-Oil-funded naysaying of much of the mainstream media, the case for action on global warming is trickling away, being lost by default. Dismissive phrases about cutting “the green crap” dominate the conversation, even as ordinary voters get the science and understand its urgency.

In the worst possible way, yet another abnormally hot and dangerous summer – which the meteorologists tell us is on the way – may make the case for a big Starmer intervention on the subject before long. Good, because recently, Labour enthusiasm for net zero has been waning and has begun to sound apologetic. It wasn’t even a “first step”.

Far from campaigning as a green zealot, Ed Miliband has rebadged his drive towards net zero, Biden-like, as a cost-of-living issue: electricity bills were 101 per cent higher in 2023 than 2010 in real terms, and can only be cut with Britain investing far more in clean energy at home, out of the control of foreign dictators.

That might be a shrewd recasting of the argument in terms of Reeves’ “securonomics”, but the public understands changes of behaviour are needed here and everywhere to help prevent global meltdown. There is energy in this conviction, and Labour should make a more vociferous case for its own plans.

The hard left will always cry betrayal; Conservative Britain will always dismiss change as childish. Most people live in the great gap between the two. This summer, they need more confidence, more hope.

[See also: Labour is moving away from the government line on Gaza]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024