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19 July 2023

Keir Starmer’s most dangerous months now lie ahead

The Labour leader faces a tension between economic orthodoxy and the promise of change.

By Andrew Marr

Another parliamentary season concludes in a tired and snappish mood, and you might think nothing’s changed. The boats legislation, culture-war signalling, rows over Labour timidity: as the wider country struggles, is Westminster just an endless circle of gurgling repetitive nonsense?

Just below the surface, there has been a deep shift. Despite Rishi Sunak’s ferocious determination, there’s a sense that a long Tory era is ending and we are into, probably, “Labour in power – the prologue”. Which means, for Keir Starmer and his team, the most dangerous months now lie ahead. There will be far more scrutiny, more scepticism, and, when they win power, a world of pain – and they haven’t so far got a jot of power.

In October 1994, with the next general election still a long way away and the opposition similarly riding high in the polls, Tony Blair sat down to assess where Labour was positioned. His conclusion was that the party was divided in three: old-fashioned Labour, which could never win; modernised Labour, later to be known as New Labour, which would keep winning; and a third category, forgotten now, which he called “plain Labour”. This stodgily middle-ground party, he thought, “could win once, but essentially as a reaction to an unpopular Conservative government”.

Today, so long after he left Downing Street, Blair is a committed backer of Starmer. But rereading Blair’s old appraisal and reflecting on the huge turnaround in seats Starmer needs to win, you have to consider “plain Labour”.

At one level, plainness is a huge relief. A calm, unemphatic political leadership, which emphasises competence, resilience and the big job of rebuilding that Britain needs, feels like a tonic, after the heedlessness and bombast of recent years. A politics that under-promised and over-delivered might, these days, win a series of elections.

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But there must also be hope, uplift and energy. The trap for Starmer-era Labour was laid out by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on 16 July. She asked Starmer whether he backed Sunak’s decision to award public sector workers the 5-6 per cent that the pay review bodies had recommended. He was unable to answer yes or no. In a sense, this is perfectly reasonable: it was the Tories’ dilemma, not his; and so far away from power, how could he assess what a fair and economically affordable deal would be? The trouble is, it looked pretty terrible, not least to public sector workers who might have been watching.

Then there’s retaining the Tory “two-child policy”, which limits child benefit for larger families. Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader, has previously described the policy as “obscene and inhumane” and Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, has called it “heinous”. Eight Labour frontbenchers have called for it to be scrapped. Starmer now says: “We are not changing that policy.” Even some of his closest allies are privately aghast. Advisers believe it was the right move – the policy is relatively popular and the public will notice him standing up to the left. But I get the impression that experienced front-line Labour politicians find this painful.

[See also: Why is Keir Starmer backing the two-child benefit cap?]

And so the trap snaps shut. The tension is between orthodox economics and the promise of change. Agree to fund change and you look authentic but also “same old Labour”. Refuse and you look divided, heartless and pointless: no alternative to the Tories.

The key phrase here is “orthodox economics”. There is an alternative radical economics of higher taxes and borrowing – but it’s not this Labour Party’s and, after the Truss disaster, it might, whatever the left thinks, be electorally catastrophic.

Starmer tried, as he must, to change the terms of trade by insisting that growth comes before public service reinvestment. But this is just the beginning of a long torture being prepared for him between now and, say, October next year. Free school meals; the pay rise doctors urgently deserve; the fate of failing utilities such as water; dealing with asbestos and decay in schools; restoring the British armed forces – these are just a few of the issues that will be put to Starmer. And in each case the answer will be “no”.

This will feel like a huge accumulation, month by month, of individual disappointments leading to general disillusion. The deeper the economic trouble left by Tory Britain, the sharper the trap for Labour. It will be ghastly. And, writing ahead of the event, I suspect it will be central to Labour’s National Policy Forum in Nottingham from 21 to 22 July.

There are ways out of this trap but they haven’t yet been signposted. The first is to point out that different priorities, even inside the same spending envelope, produce increasingly different results. This involves distinguishing between oppositionist promises and a clear medium-term direction of travel as the economy grows. As we say to our Labrador, “Not now, but soon.” An even slowly growing economy that channels all the available “headroom” into the NHS or child poverty, rather than into sending undocumented migrants to Rwanda or abolishing inheritance tax, produces – given time – a different country.

The second escape route is to focus on changes that do not require big government spending: the fashionable one right now is to liberalise the planning system to allow a faster expansion of the National Grid and of house building. For my money, the proposed Labour changes to childcare and the curriculum are at least as significant as this.

[See also: What’s wrong with the English planning system?]

But the third way of escaping the deadening politics of the endless “no” is the most honourable: to pick a big, difficult fight and be on the right side of it. In a sense, this was what Blair did before the 1997 General Election when he took on his party over Clause IV. You could argue that Starmer did something similar by confronting the Corbynite left over anti-Semitism but that was an argument that seemed internal and, unlike Clause IV – which was after all about the ownership of the economy – felt rather distant from the public interest.

Today’s biggest fight by far is over the climate. The catastrophic tipping point is here. Much of Europe is broiling. The US is baking. We know this, but the mass climate migration is only just beginning and we haven’t yet felt the impact of rising oceans or the effect on global food supply. Picking a side means picking hard fact over wishful thinking, science over pseudoscience, the future over nostalgia.

But this will also be a very hard argument. The reported, and laughingly denied, comment by the Labour leader about “hating” tree-huggers is a small but telling example of how the mainstream media is instinctively hostile to environmentalism, even now. Expressing personal hostility to the (admittedly tactically obtuse and irritating) Just Stop Oil is widely applauded as stout common sense. But expressing alarm about rising sea temperatures, for instance, or what is happening in Spain and Italy right now, is treated by many as far-out weirdo fluff.

The fight can’t be dodged. In the US the right-wingers gathering behind Donald Trump for his second presidential term are already planning a new “let it gush” era of oil and gas – turning up the heat even as the fire gets going. It’s not unreasonable to think that a future Trumpian America pursuing these policies would be a greater existential threat to a Starmer government than Putin’s Russia.

Even as the Tories lean hard the other way, if Starmer and his team pride themselves on being practical, fact-based, down-to-earth people, shouldn’t they be having this argument on every platform available, finding language that resonates with voters? There is nothing plain, nothing vanilla, nothing “What’s it all really for?” about the biggest threat ahead. This is how to dodge the trap and move our politics forward. Pick a fight. Have it. And if not that fight, which?

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

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world

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