In some ways for the Labour leader, this is as good as it gets: Keir Starmer has never been so powerful before and will never be again. This may seem a wilful columnist’s paradox. We expect him, after all, to become prime minister later in the year, and that is real power – the institutional levers, cranks and handles this toolmaker’s son believes, rightly, are the only purpose of a political life.
But power in government is different. Much bigger – and also much more constrained; by events crashing across the desk, by practical limitations, by passing majorities. One day, in a future parallel world, he could have a conversation with Rishi Sunak about all that.
No. I mean that he is now at his least constrained, most able to order and shape. What Keir says, goes. What Keir wants Keir gets. There is no meaningful leftist opposition inside the Labour Party. The unions, despite occasional muttering, are desperate for a Labour victory and quiescent. Despite the suspension of the whip from Kate Osamor, the Edmonton MP, for a tweet about the Holocaust at the end of January, the Parliamentary Labour Party is more self-disciplined than it has ever been since I began as a Commons reporter in the mid-1980s.
One member of the shadow cabinet reflects that Starmer “is lord of all he surveys”. Very good. So, the next question is: what does he intend to do with his relative freedom? It won’t come again.
He doesn’t look or sound unconstrained. In the Commons, and frowning with pursed lips on the front of Labour’s new campaigning document and proto-manifesto, “Let’s Get Britain’s Future Back”, he seems clenched – determined but with just a hint of anxiety.
That’s because, inside the leader’s office, it does not feel like freedom. The final manifesto preparations have been ordered to be ready by 11 February for a possible spring election, about which Team Starmer remains obsessed. Much of the Conservative media may be, as I argued in the last issue, increasingly focused on a rebel, pro-Reform UK agenda. But one of Starmer’s leading advisers tells me he thinks the media climate is “infinitely worse” than 1997, with even the Times being “a Sunak cheerleader” and the BBC tamely following Fleet Street’s agenda.
Then there is the story over which Labour has no control – what happens inside the Conservatives. Might there, even yet, be another leadership contest producing a fresh face the battered Tories can use to get a hearing and turn numbers round?
In my view, no: but the fear for Labour is there. Fuelled by 3am nightmares, party debate continues about a May election vs a November election. This is not just about timing, or when to spend the money, or in selecting final candidates. A spring election would be very different from an autumn one. A May election would only happen because Sunak had lost the power to control the timetable, which means further internal Tory collapse and a poll, with or without a new prime minister, in an atmosphere of chaos.
In those panicky circumstances Labour would probably face a fantasy Tory manifesto, offering dramatic tax cuts – returning the navy, perhaps, from the Red Sea to “stop the boats”. It would play into Starmer’s image as a grounded, sane alternative. There would be comparatively little focus on Labour’s contested “£28bn-a-year” green industrial revolution, or capital investment generally.
A November election would be different. It would take place under the looming shadow of another Donald Trump presidential election, and be focused on Europe defending itself against Russia – and therefore be very much about Labour, as well as Tory, spending. A Trump America would, inevitably, drive the UK towards Europe, if not the EU. Sunak would presumably still be in No 10. It would be a very different fight.
These are the debates ricocheting around the Labour leadership and go some way to explain tensions about staffing. After briefings against Sue Gray, the former top civil servant now running Starmer’s team, I hear nothing but pushback, insisting that she is professionalising the operation hugely but keeping away from big political choices. “She is very popular, actually, with the shadow cabinet because she believes in bringing the political voices into the room whenever it matters – which is just what we want,” one of them said.
She is compared to Jonathan Powell, another former civil servant who joined Team Blair at roughly the same point in the process – somebody who is there for the first period of government, not for electoral campaigning or party reasons.
There is also a lively debate about the future of Starmer’s communications team. The personalities are less relevant here than the underlying question about the extent to which the leader should be “sold” as heir-to-Blair. Veteran Blairites are determined he should be. Others point out that Starmer is a very different personality, with different politics, and that this comparison is bound to underrate and diminish him.
Amid all this internal turbulence, the fate of the “£28bn” has become the Ark of the Covenant, furiously contested between Israelites and Philistines. As reported last year, the true figure has been diminished by already committed government spending, and had been put off until the midterm of any Labour government. It may soon disappear completely. One close Starmer ally tells me: “Many think we need to present the smallest target possible.”
But there is an obvious problem, and it returns us to the Labour leader’s current freedom from personal constraint. What is Labour for? What is Starmer for?
There is a long answer and it is a good answer – one he gave in his speech to the party conference last year. It is about the national rebuilding required after 1945, the modernisation required when Harold Wilson came to power in 1964, and the revival of the public sector when Tony Blair won his great victory in 1997 – but all done together, rather as the Starmer leadership has compressed the advance of the Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Blair years internally.
It is a good answer. But it is long. And it doesn’t respond directly to the misery of all the people struggling to pay their bills, or the increase in deep poverty identified by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently. The proper answer to them is that there can be no prosperity, no successful war against poverty, won by a chaotic state atop a stuttering economy. Economic growth is utterly essential.
The trouble is, the “green prosperity plan” is not just Labour’s answer on net zero; it is also most of Labour’s growth plan. Abandon it in the context of fiscal orthodoxy and you risk abandoning hope, abandoning definition, abandoning the difference with the Conservatives. The country is already depressed. In the interests of a small target, Labour cannot throw away its big offer.
The answer is to stop talking about numbers and start digging into the promise of new jobs, on green steel or onshore wind or in the electric car market, so that an abstract thing can start to feel harder-edged, practical and immediate. Alongside that, if there is a fantasy Tory offer of deep income-tax cuts, Labour must relentlessly ram home that this is an agenda for multiple hospital closures, school closures, the end of the effective army – agreeing with the International Monetary Fund, which “advised the UK against further tax cuts” on 30 January. Sauce for the gander.
This can’t be done by shadow cabinet ministers fencing defensively through media interviews: it needs a big intervention by Keir Starmer or Rachel Reeves, or both, about essential national priorities – about, you might almost say, Britain getting its future back.
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State