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2 July 2024

Keir Starmer’s hard road ahead

Labour’s project to rebuild Britain is serious – but the odds are stacked against them.

By Andrew Marr

One thing we can all agree on: Keir Starmer’s Labour government has been an unmitigated disaster. It has been oppressive, incompetent, tin-eared, divided. It has failed to achieve growth or lower immigration or cut crime.

What’s that you say? That I’m writing this before the votes have been counted? That it hasn’t “happened” yet? Details. Piddling, finickety details. Look at the bigger picture. Bloody Labour, stodgy betrayers – they have already failed us again.

For the right it is obvious that Starmer, having been so unsporting, so un-British, as to outsmart and out-campaign the Conservative Party, represents a looming dictatorship that is estranged from normal British values. In the words of a relatively calm Telegraph writer, the near future will be “visionlessly utopian, progressively anti-progress, a harbinger of both existential paralysis and constitutional tyranny”. Which doesn’t sound great. Or, in the characteristically salty view of Jeremy Clarkson, Starmer will bring us “open borders, zero growth and everyone living in a bucket of shame because their great-great-grandad once bought a hairbrush that had possibly been made by slaves”.

None of this is surprising. A long Tory hegemony is collapsing and the hegemon’s loyal outriders are upset. But predictions of catastrophe are almost as vivid from the left. By ruling out big tax increases, Starmer shows himself to be a pink Tory, salivating to further immiserate children from poor families. He will spend his first weekend at Chequers flogging off the NHS to Peter Mandelson’s American friends; and his second one taking calls from his Washington handlers before allowing himself a refreshing wallow in the suffering of Palestinians.

I am barely exaggerating. A remarkable spread of opinion – elite, popular, clubland, local boozer – has written off the likely next government so absolutely it seems barely worth them turning up. There isn’t much JK Rowling and Owen Jones agree on, but for the teeth-grinding awfulness of Keir Starmer they make an exception.

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In part this is nothing but a reflection of the beaten-down, demoralised and rackety condition of the country. As I have been arguing for weeks, the consequent anger and mistrust of the political class is the biggest unknown in the system. Even now, though I’m pretty sure of a big Labour victory, I am unclear about its scale. Only a few days before 4 July, I was hearing Labour canvassers and Tory organisers say that the tax message was beginning to cut through, and prominent incumbent Tories were holding on far better than the polls suggested.

Meanwhile we’ve had a hyper-disciplined and unimaginative election campaign, which in turn may limit the future space for radical change. Talking to friends across the political spectrum, I can’t find the updraft of enthusiasm Tony Blair enjoyed in 1997; rather, a weary, mistrustful anti-Tory stoicism already tuned for disappointment – a marriage partner let down once too often.

The destruction of Tory England will be a cultural as well as a political moment remembered for decades. There’s a last days of the Roman empire mood about. But from the Galloway left to the Farage right, it’s accompanied by voting provoked more by anger than hope. As in France now, or perhaps in the US soon, it has been an election in which the main emotion is tearing down, not building up.

Amid this landscape of ash, dying flames and desolation, stands a stolid, bespectacled, slightly bemused-looking man with sleeves neatly rolled. After a campaign of deflection and euphemism, many voters see Keir Starmer as a blur at the centre of British life.

So, let’s try to do better. He is not a radical but he is righteous, self-certain and politically emphatic. The most absurd line of Tory attack is that behind those spectacles lies the mind of a revolutionary. Far from it.

He sees himself as a patriotic rebuilder of the public realm, someone whose destiny is to heal, restore, protect and return the country to better times. If you think this sounds like small-c conservatism, well, that too is a Labour tradition. None of Healey, Callaghan, Morrison or Bevin would have had any difficulty in understanding Starmer.

But if you then assume it means quietism, you have it wrong. Starmer feels the hand of history just as firmly on his shoulder as Blair ever did. If his mission to deliver for “working people” fails, a much darker, radical-right revenge is ready and waiting. So he needs an energy and a ruthlessness in delivering change that will, over the next few years, upset a lot of people.

People living on capital, or increasing their wealth by regularly selling assets; people who could work but choose not to, taking benefits instead; people who don’t want any building near them; public service managers enjoying a relatively easy, comfortable life… these, and no doubt others, will be upset.

There will be difficult conversations with public-sector workers assuming big pay increases because Labour has been elected; with private schools pleading poverty; with developers sitting on unused land as an asset. But if there are howls of protest, Starmer will be unmoved. He is not, as this campaign has demonstrated, a great storyteller. But he’s a tough old nut.

We should not assume there is no pressure on him from the left. One likely consequence of tactical voting against the Tories would be a substantial Liberal Democrat group in the Commons – perhaps 50 or more MPs. Oddly, the media has barely focused on this.

But the Liberal Democrat manifesto puts the party well to the left of Starmer on tax, NHS investment, building a proper system of care, and opening up towards Europe. On the specifics, they have a long history of hostility to the two-child welfare cap and are committed to increasing taxes on the banks. A phalanx of Lib Dems making common cause with leftish Labour MPs seems to be one of the few real parliamentary headaches ahead for Starmer.

Meanwhile, the Labour hierarchy has been working flat-out to prepare for early “shock and awe” weeks in government to jolt the country awake. On 9-11 July there is the Nato summit in Washington where a new Labour government, still rubbing its eyes, will be on the international stage alongside vain, stumbling Joe Biden. On 18 July there is the European political summit at Blenheim Palace, where Starmer will set out his thinking on a new relationship with the EU, and we will get the first responses from European leaders.

On 17 July there will be the King’s Speech, heavy on the five missions, and followed briskly by bills on law and order, the voting age, the smoking ban, dentistry and Great British Energy. By October – not before – we will have Rachel Reeves’s analysis of exactly where the economy is after one (perhaps two) interest rate cuts.

Simply having new people with ordinary voices in charge of the country will make Britain feel subtly different. After years in which MPs have become degraded in the eyes of the public, there is an extraordinary and exhilarating influx of good new people coming. Among the Labour cohort alone, there are two former diplomats, a former police inspector and prison officer, six former teachers, ten with a background in health, including two GPs and a surgeon, three scientists, three others with technology backgrounds, a screenwriter, a musician and three journalists – the latter, by the way, good ones.

Behind the scenes there’s a focused determination to get to work quickly. That’s heartening, but the first six to 18 months will be very hard indeed. Instead of running towards big arguments and trying to win them, the party has done everything possible to close them down. This means the ground has not been properly prepared.

Take Europe. Starmer wants to “tear down the barriers to business and trade” while not re-entering the European customs union or single market. But for a government focused on economic growth, that raises many more questions than it answers. The Observer published a poll on 23 June saying that 56 per cent of voters believe Brexit has been bad for the economy and quoted economists from the London School of Economics and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research insisting, rightly, that single market membership was important for trade and competition.

But on the EU side I’m told there can be no real movement on trade barriers without movement on the European Court (which I think possible) and free movement (which I don’t). Something will have to give. How far can a new relationship go? At what price? And for which specific benefits?

Next, take immigration. Shadow ministers have been almost gleeful about the 13,000-plus migrants that have come across the Channel so far this year. “Tory failure”, but the boats aren’t going to stop. The country is taking a lot on trust and without much detail: what precisely will happen to the residents of the asylum accommodation barge Bibby Stockholm? Asked this by ITV, Starmer was unable to answer. What will happen, after processing, to all the boat migrants already here?

Looming largest of all is the economy. On growth, I am optimistic: stability and political discipline will encourage overseas investors spooked by continental politics and the Biden meltdown. The bond markets won’t punish Reeves as they punished Liz Truss if she increases borrowing for investment as part of a considered plan.

But that’s longer-term. The pressure for early funding for public services will be intense. People who vote for “change” want to feel it. Wes Streeting will get the junior doctors around the table within days. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests Labour needs £6bn-£7bn to stop nurses, teachers and other public-sector workers falling further behind those in the private sector.

Then there are the universities on the edge; the crisis at Thames Water; local authorities close to bankruptcy; overflowing prisons. Even the modest sources of extra funding already announced may not prove enough. Private schools are getting parents to pay up to five years ahead to avoid the 20 per cent VAT hit from a Labour government.

Labour in opposition has deliberately avoided making a full-frontal case for higher public spending as a national good, so the Tory cuts baked into budgets for non-protected departments have been barely challenged. These are, by far, the biggest domestic issues for a “rebuilding government”. Starmer and the people around him may be exhausted but they’re going to need every ounce of their grit and energy in the weeks and months ahead. And we should wish them well.

The Westminster consensus isn’t always wrong. But it often is. In dismissing Starmer’s mission for national renewal, critics from the right and left fall into the British default of whiney pessimism and prove themselves unserious. He isn’t an actor. And this isn’t a game.  

Illustration by Jonathan McHugh

[See also: The end of Tory England]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain