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Was it a good idea for Keir Starmer to praise Thatcher?

By aligning himself with the former Tory PM, the Labour leader focuses too heavily on the past.

By Freddie Hayward

Labour leaders have a habit of lauding Margaret Thatcher. Tony Blair said he “always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done”. Ed Miliband offered the more muted reflection upon her death that she “broke the mould”. Gordon Brown described her as a “conviction politician” who saw “the need for change”. Even Keir Starmer said that Thatcher was “right” about law and order in his speech on crime in March.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the current Labour leader once again praised the late Tory PM yesterday for her capacity to bring about “meaningful change”. In the Sunday Telegraph, he wrote:

“Margaret Thatcher sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism. Tony Blair reimagined a stale, outdated Labour Party into one that could seize the optimism of the late 1990s. A century ago, Clement Attlee wrote that Labour must be a party of duty and patriotism, not abstract theory.”

[See also: It only gets worse for Rishi Sunak]

What is going on here? The piece is designed to win over Tory voters, hence it is in the Sunday Telegraph. Starmer is essentially arguing that where the Tories have failed Labour will succeed. He is trying to temper fears that Labour will “wreck the country” by saying things that will annoy his party’s left. This has been the strategy for a while.

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Trying to win over voters is generally a good idea for politicians looking to get elected. To that end, Labour does not want to cede any ground to the Conservatives, whether that is through fiscal conservatism or promises to cut immigration. In the article Starmer dismisses the “nonsensical idea that some subjects are simply off limits for us”. This fits with the more bullish tone on immigration that Starmer has adopted in recent weeks.

The former Labour strategist John McTernan raises a practical problem for Starmer: the Tory vote is now so low that there aren’t that many swing voters to win over. The distinction between praising someone’s power to affect change and the change itself is easily lost. Similarly, how do you promise change while praising the past? It’s all very well and good highlighting prime ministers who have restructured politics and government. It does speak to the ambition at the centre of Starmerism. And as we recently discussed on the New Statesman Podcast, some in Labour are looking to 1979 for inspiration about how to create a hegemonic political project. But Labour’s problem remains convincing voters of its plan for the future, not its views on the past.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: The Tories have no good reason to deny us an election]

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