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Keir Starmer’s prevention politics

The Labour leader is motivated by a desire to stop disaster before it happens.

By Yasmeen Sebbana

Keir Starmer is a serious man who thinks politics is a serious business. He thinks the best way to help people is to shift the way government thinks about long-term problems: away from applying sticking plasters to a never-ending list of crises, and towards tackling the root causes of issues.

I spent years on the road with him, and he was constantly trying to understand the underlying reasons for why something occurred. This attitude was evident through years of scrutinising Brexit negotiations in opposition (an episode that probably scarred both of us for life), but was also apparent when we travelled across the country during the Labour leadership contest. The most common question Starmer asked was “…and why is that?” He never stopped trying to understand the relationship between the issues people were facing and their causes.

I’m surprised more people haven’t noticed the essay he wrote in a 2016 Fabian Society pamphlet; it was almost entirely about prevention. Even when he was still a new MP he said “generational change” was needed to move away from short-term fixes and to create a system that prioritises investment in preventative measures. This would be a transformative shift from public services that “have increasingly become crisis services – dealing only with expensive end results, not preventing them occurring in the first place”. 

Starmer is not the first politician to say he wants to prevent problems, not just mop up the mess afterwards. But when shadow health ministers and others talk about “prevention”, it’s not just a buzzword. It is a desire for a genuinely different approach.

While New Labour had many successful policies, its focus on prevention was not the same. Its economic reforms focused on free-market principles to grow the economy, while redistributing through a strong welfare state and better-funded public services. New Labour’s welfare reforms, including the introduction of the working families’ tax credit, successfully reduced poverty through the incentivisation of work. But that’s not the kind of reform of government departments that Starmer and his team have identified as a priority for the next Labour government. In 2023 unemployment is a social, not just financial issue, and will need a holistic and preventative approach to improve it.

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[See also: “Security”: The inside story of Labour’s new buzzword]

This approach distinguishes him from the current government. Sunak’s five priorities for 2023 – to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce national debt, reduce NHS waiting times and stop small-boat crossings – are short-termist and designed to cater to the public’s sentiment for quick political gains. Deterring small boats and cutting waiting lists are about removing the symptom rather than dealing with its root cause.

This conviction in the power of prevention is the guiding principle of Starmer’s five national missions. We can see this in his health policy, to transform the NHS into a “prevention first” model, with the scale of work needed being described as nothing less than a “revolution”. This would incorporate preventative measures (such as banning junk-food advertising to children) into a holistic approach to society that recognises how secure jobs, adequate housing and safe streets all contribute to an individual’s health. Similarly, the crime mission calls for a “deep focus on early prevention” through measures such as placing youth workers in custody suites and counsellors in schools to tackle problems early.

The challenge is that the scale of radical change needed to shift the country to prevention-first policymaking will be expensive, and Labour are operating in a hugely challenging environment. The party will inherit an economy that is in a terrible state, and its fiscal rules – which include balancing the books on day-to-day spending and borrowing only for capital investment – mean that there will be little money to fund the scale of investment needed for such a system-wide overhaul. Starmer’s dilemma is how to talk about his prevention agenda, while maintaining the party’s fiscal credibility.

What happens if Labour wins two terms of government? It is my expectation that by the end of 2030 we will have seen extra money fund not only police cells and prisons, but go into community care and youth centres. I’d expect the court system to have been upgraded and more intensive early-years support for those at risk of being left behind. I expect a focus on training and skills, on growing the talents of everyone in our country. This is where Starmer’s policy focus lies.

As we get closer to the election, Labour will be able to make decisions on tax-and-spend based on a more accurate understanding of what the fiscal environment is, and it will be able to fill in the frame of Starmer’s vision. We will then see a radical, reforming Labour prime minister emerge who will reset the way public services work to prevent problems, rather than simply treating the symptoms.

This, Starmer hopes, will be his legacy; one that he has been arguing for since well before becoming Labour leader. Prevention is the guiding principle for how he makes many of the biggest decisions. It is around this that he will build his government.

[See also: How Labour can be radical for free]

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