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11 January 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 12:16pm

What is Keir Starmer’s bid to make Labour “the party of the family” really about?

Labour doesn’t have a new policy on “family values”. It just has a new way of talking about council tax.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer has marked a “new phase” of his leadership, with a major policy speech setting out a vision and direction for the Labour Party. Or has he?

That is certainly what we were expecting. The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman reported last month that the new Labour leader would start the new year with a series of major policy speeches intended to flesh out his vision for the party, after a first year as leader mainly focused on introducing himself to the public and drawing a line under the Corbyn era. “New year, new Keir” was the message: a series of interventions focusing on the “politics of place and people” and aimed at winning back voters who abandoned Labour at the last election.

[Hear more from Ailbhe on The New Statesman Podcast]

That is, on the face of it, what we had this morning: a major speech emphasising Labour’s “family values”, following an op-ed by the Labour leader in the Sunday Telegraph this weekend saying he wants his party to be “the party of the family”. Such was the perceived tonal shift, it prompted alarm among some activists and MPs that this amounted to a socially conservative, even backwards, new emphasis on marriage and the traditional nuclear unit. (Wes Streeting, the party’s shadow schools minister, has written for Pink News today emphasising that the “the party of the family” “absolutely includes the LGBT+ community”.)

But look carefully at this morning’s speech or the weekend’s op-ed, and you’ll see that “family” isn’t doing much more in these interventions than providing a way for Labour to anchor its wide-ranging critique of the government’s economic response in the experience of ordinary people. Through the framing device of “the family” and “protecting family incomes”, what Starmer in fact delivered was a speech arguing against council tax increases and cuts to Universal Credit. These interventions about “the family” are the sexiest way Labour can roll the pitch for the local elections that are coming up. 

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It is a major strategy of Labour going forward to make sure it roots its economic policies in the experiences of ordinary people and their lives. In that sense, these new interventions from Starmer do signify an important statement about the approach ahead. But that isn’t because Labour has a new policy on “family values”. It just has a new way of talking about the economy, and a new way to get people to listen to speeches about council tax.