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18 February 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:01pm

Keir Starmer delivers his most important speech to date

The Labour leader is attempting to frame the economic argument that the party will be making for years to come. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer will deliver the most important speech of his leadership this morning, as he hopes to frame the argument that Labour will be making for the next few years leading up to the general election, and potentially well into the end of the decade. The economics-focused speech, which is timed to look ahead to next month’s Budget, will offer a “first glimpse of Starmerism”, as one aide breathlessly puts it, setting out the Labour leader’s personal analysis of what has gone wrong in the past decade and his vision for what a Labour government would do differently. 

[Hear Ailbhe discuss Starmer’s speech on the New Statesman podcast]

There are two prongs to the narrative: that it is Conservative ideology that caused the UK to suffer so badly from the coronavirus pandemic, and that it is Labour who can be trusted to rebuild the country for the future. But rather than the Beveridge report of 1942 or Harold Wilson’s “white heat” speech, the parallel that Labour aides are keen to draw this morning is with the narrative developed by David Cameron and George Osborne in the wake of the economic crash of 2008. They successfully argued that the recession was an inevitable consequence of mismanagement of the economy and over-spending under Labour, a narrative that carried the Conservatives into Downing Street and that persists in public opinions about Labour’s economic competence to this day.  

[See also: Why Labour must follow Joe Biden’s example and advocate a radical economic alternative]

The work of Labour in the coming years is to unpick that narrative and replace it with its inverse: that the UK’s experience of the coronavirus pandemic, with one of the worst death rates and one of the worst recessions among developed economies, wasn’t just a product of mistakes made during the pandemic, but of Conservative decisions stretching back a decade. Coronavirus has shone a light into the cracks in British society that have been caused and exacerbated by Conservative ideology, Starmer will argue, and Labour is the party to fix it.  

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The framing of Labour’s proposal – to be the party to rebuild  is explicitly directed towards those longstanding concerns about the party’s economic competence. Rather than simply largesse versus austerity, the pitch of the Labour party under Starmer is framed around the themes that Anneliese Dodds and her shadow treasury team, as well as other shadow cabinet ministers with economics-related briefs, have been pushing for the past year: security, building economic resilience, repairing our weak economic foundations, investing, and managing the public finances responsibly. It is an anti-austerity argument, yes, but framed in the reassuring language of economic competence and responsibility.

The speech comes against a backdrop of criticism about the Labour leader in the commentariat and among MPs in his own party, who worry that he has struggled to set out a clear vision of what Labour stands for, and argue that the party should be performing better in the polls. Those close to the Labour leader and shadow chancellor grumble that critics asking for more proactive moves from the leadership could simply have waited a weekend, for Rachel Reeves’ speech on cronyism and Starmer’s own long-planned intervention today. 

Some on the left, including Momentum, have pre-emptively condemned the speech for a lack of ambition; whether that is a fair critique will rest on the major policy announcements that have been saved for the speech itself. The speech isn’t, however, a response to Starmer’s critics, or a new effort to be bolder, but part of the leadership’s pre-existing plan. Today is about unveiling Keir Starmer’s vision for the UK under a Labour government, but with the core objective of addressing Labour’s achilles heel on the economy, which John McDonnell himself worked hard to address as shadow chancellor.  It’s the beginning of an effort to displace Cameron and Osborne’s decades-long, election-winning narrative, and to begin replacing it with one that Keir Starmer hopes will deliver the same success for Labour. 

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[See also: Jess Phillips: “Keir Starmer has done a remarkable job”]