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12 December 2023updated 21 Dec 2023 12:04pm

How Starmer seized the moral advantage

While the Tories squabble over the Rwanda plan, the Labour leader declares that he will lead a “decade of national renewal”.

By Freddie Hayward

The backdrop to Keir Starmer’s speech today (12 December) could not have been more illustrative. While the Labour leader spoke in Buckinghamshire castigating the Conservative Party for allowing internal skirmishes to override its responsibilities as a government, Tory MPs ferreted around Westminster, deciding whether to put Rishi Sunak’s leadership at risk by voting down his Rwanda bill in the Commons this evening.

Starmer’s decision to deliver a speech away from Westminster was a smart way of showing that Labour will govern in the national interest. Whereas the Tories cannot even manage their own party. They are making it easy for Starmer. “While they’re swanning around, self-importantly, with their factions and their star chambers, fighting like rats in a sack, there’s a country out here that isn’t being governed,” he said.

The Labour leader ran through the government’s failures, describing the Rwanda plan – which would send asylum seekers to the central African country – as the pinnacle of its incompetence. It is not only a “gimmick”, he said, but a waste of money that could instead be spent bolstering the border force. Wasteful government is a core Labour attack line but here Starmer made a broader point. “After the sex scandals, the expenses scandals, the waste scandals, the contracts for friends, even in a crisis like the pandemic, people now think politics is about naked self-enrichment.”

Beyond the attacks on the government, this was a statement of values meant to draw a contrast between the two main parties – one at ease breaking international law, and the other led by a former director of prosecutions who put “expense-cheat politicians in jail”. As prime minister, Starmer claimed, he would abide by the law and restore probity to public life – a bar set so low by the government’s own standards.

Watch: The New Statesman podcast discusses how much Sunak and Starmer actually differ in style and substance

That partly explains why there are so few areas that Labour is not willing to go up against the Conservatives. If you thought Keir Starmer’s opposition to high immigration was a one-off sop to the right, then his speech today suggested the opposite. It showed that lower immigration will be central to Labour’s programme. Whether it delivers on that is another matter, but Starmer’s opposition to wage-reducing, condition-suppressing, business-driven immigration is becoming more trenchant.

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That tonal shift began with his speech to the Confederation of Business Industry last year when he condemned Britain’s “immigration dependency”. Today, he made explicit the connection between high immigration and the Tories “driving down the terms and conditions of the British people”. And yes, Starmer confirmed, Brexit was a vote for “lower immigration”. But he thinks it was also a vote for higher wages, better public services and the restoration of communities.

The problems that pockmark the public realm demand, Starmer said, a “decade of national renewal”. The alacrity with which Starmer can survey the fractures in the public services has always been the reason that he, and not the leader of the party in power for 13 years, is the more plausible “change” candidate. The government’s actions today, and for a long time, have furnished Starmer’s speech writers with copious material.

Starmer’s speech was not a policy programme, but a statement of values. And with the Conservative Party’s civil war as his background, it was one of his most comprehensive yet.

[See also: Labour is breaking with a failed economic consensus]

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