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11 March 2024updated 12 Mar 2024 9:43am

A think tank for the age of Starmer

How the UCL Policy Lab is channelling the Labour leader’s “ordinary hope”.

By George Eaton

On the evening of 27 February, at the Lighthouse Building in King’s Cross, central London, a selection of those shaping Britain’s future assembled: Labour Party aides, centre-left think tank heads, permanent secretaries and charity leaders. You could call it Starmerism in one room.

They were there for the launch of Ordinary Hope, a collection of essays, articles and interviews based on a collaboration between the two-year-old UCL Policy Lab and the 120-year-old Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). Keir Starmer’s director of policy Stuart Ingham, his senior adviser Peter Hyman and two incoming aides, Harvey Redgrave of the Tony Blair Institute and Graeme Cooke of the JRF, were among those present (fittingly, in Starmer’s own Holborn and St Pancras constituency). So too were the former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell and Starmer’s biographer Tom Baldwin, both members of the Ordinary Hope project. But the gathering stretched beyond traditional party lines.

“It’s so hard and depressing to speak to young people when their story is simply that things are inevitably going to get worse and that politics is only about managing decline,” said James Graham – perhaps the pre-eminent British playwright of his era – as he addressed the audience of 150 people. Graham, who dramatised the collapse of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government and the Brexit referendum, quipped that he had been asked when he would do the same for Liz Truss’s premiership.

“Apart from the fact that people aren’t commissioning short films at the moment, I wouldn’t want to dwell on a lot of those themes,” he reflected. “I’m looking forward to a future where change can actually happen.”

Change is the ambition of the Ordinary Hope project, the title of which alludes to the speech Starmer delivered at Labour’s 2022 annual conference. “There’s something else I remember about being working class in the 1970s: hope,” he said then. “Not a grandiose, utopian dream kind of hope. A hope that was ordinary. Basic. Taken for granted. Because like all families, although [mine] had our ups and downs, my parents never doubted for one second that things would get better.”

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Starmer’s words resonated with Marc Stears, the political theorist and inaugural director of the UCL Policy Lab. They seemed an antidote to what he regarded as the “excessive grandiosity” of both the Brexiteer right and the Corbynite left – ideological visions that imploded upon contact with reality. In Starmer’s “ordinary hope”, he felt “a realism, a tangibility, an earthiness and grittiness” fused with a belief that “things nonetheless can be better, that you can make small steps towards larger transformations”. 

Stears was moved to recall his own upbringing in Cwmbran, south Wales: “As with millions of others at the time, my mum and dad were the first in their families to be able to go to higher education in the 1960s. After college, they got secure, professional middle-class jobs, with salaries and pensions that their parents could only have dreamed of.”

He was troubled by the gulf between the expectations of those postwar generations – social mobility reached a record high in the 1970s – and those of young people today in a country where living standards have stagnated for more than a decade and the public realm has retreated. Could the “ordinary hope” that Starmer spoke of ever be recaptured?

Recent British prime ministers have often had a think tank of choice. Margaret Thatcher had the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs (as did Truss, her more dogmatic successor); Tony Blair had the Institute for Public Policy Research; Gordon Brown had the Smith Institute; David Cameron had Policy Exchange.

Starmer, a leader from outside traditional Westminster policy circles, has eschewed such intellectual intimacy. But if there is a truly Starmerite think tank, the UCL Policy Lab might be it.

In an interview with the Economist in 2022, the Labour leader remarked: “Starmerism is as much about the ‘how’ as the ‘what’.” The British state, he argued, was chronically short-termist and over-centralised. To change the ends, you had to change the means.

The Policy Lab reflects a similar philosophy. “Right from the start we had this observation that the amazing thing about UCL is that it was founded 200 years ago as somewhere where really sharp academic expertise could actually work hand-in-hand with those people who didn’t have a seat at the table,” Stears, 52, told me when we met at a Turkish café in Stoke Newington.

UCL, whose “spiritual founder” was the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was the first university in Britain to admit women on equal terms with men and to accept students regardless of their religion. “The current version of that is this notion that we have at the lab of extraordinary ideas and everyday experience,” said Stears. “You get real power if you bring those two things together rather than seeing them as separate.”

The Ordinary Hope team includes Chrisann Jarrett, the head of We Belong, the first UK charity founded by and for young migrants; Maff Potts, who leads Camerados, which helps communities open public living rooms in shops, schools and hospitals; and the New Statesman’s own Britain editor Anoosh Chakelian, who has long reported on the decline – and potential revival – of the public realm.

Honorary professors of the policy lab include James Graham; Torsten Bell, the Resolution Foundation chief executive (and former Labour policy director); Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies; and Amanda Glassman of the Inter-American Development Bank. Another partner is Gary Lubner, the South African businessman and Labour donor, who created the This Day Foundation to help young people access opportunities.

It was in Australia, his wife’s native country, that Stears had what he calls a “trial run”. He founded and led the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney from 2018-22. The organisation’s breakthrough came when Australia was faced with the conundrum of how to reopen the borders closed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Politics was just stuck, politicians couldn’t work out how to safely do this. At Sydney we decided that the way to answer that question wasn’t through the standard ‘let’s have a commission in Canberra’, it was actually bringing all of that practical expertise and wisdom together.

“We had the symphony orchestra, we had PwC, we had the big refugee charities, public health people, and a community of experts who came up with ideas that politicians by themselves couldn’t come up with. And it was amazing, the foundations for what became Australia’s reopening strategy emerged through those conversations.”

This became the model for the UCL Policy Lab, which plays a “convening role, bringing together different kinds of experience and expertise, helping people cross boundaries – nobody has done it quite that way before”. Rather than fixating on either the state or the market as a transformative force, the group is attracted to community projects defined by neither.

Stears, who cited political theorist Peter Mair’s book Ruling the Void (2013) on the hollowing out of Western democracy, is encouraged by Starmer’s approach. “That’s what [Labour’s] missions are really about: collaborative opportunities for us to change the country collectively, not just from government action or government spending but from a real chance for people to put their own wisdom to work.”

In his 2021 book Out of the Ordinary, Stears drew on writers such as George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and JB Priestley who “were convinced that people going about their daily lives possess all the insight, virtue and determination required to build a good society”.

As such, he is animated by proposals such as citizens’ assemblies, recently floated by Sue Gray, Starmer’s chief of staff. “There’s increasingly a recognition that the detachment of policymakers and the public is not just bad in itself, that it feeds distrust, but that it means you don’t have very good policymaking because there’s all kinds of expertise which has no way of finding its place in the system.”

It was as chief speechwriter to Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader that Stears first came to political prominence (the pair studied together at the University of Oxford in the early 1990s). “I’ve always thought that Ed had a fundamental judgement about the country which was right: that the financial crisis had revealed the way we ran our economy didn’t work for working people,” said Stears of Miliband, now Labour’s shadow climate change secretary.

There is significant continuity between Starmer and Miliband: the latter helped the former become an MP in 2015 and his social-democratic interventionism has endured. But Stears added of Starmer’s distinctive approach: “What is clearly different is this sense that you need to build a deep and sustained coalition across the country in order to enable transformation to occur.”

Is the UCL Policy Lab something of a brains trust for the Labour leader?

“The objective of the grouping was genuinely to be cross-partisan and to reflect community energy first: there are people like Maff Potts and Emily Bolton [of Our Future] in the group who are just extraordinary social entrepreneurs,” Stears replied.

“Having said that, I think there is a sense in the air of a transformative moment or a turning-point moment and that’s an invitation to Conservatives as well as Labour folk. The one thing that unites everyone in the group is the sense that the status quo doesn’t work and that change is required but that it can’t be based on empty idealistic grandiosity. It has to be tangible and real and it so happens that that resonates with the character of Keir Starmer.”

Stears recalled a pivotal scene in Graham’s recent play Dear England in which Gareth Southgate stuns his players by breaking with convention and admitting that the team is not going to win the World Cup – something none of his predecessors had the courage to do.

“He said, ‘I’m not giving up, I’m just being realistic, telling a story about how things actually are because that’s the precondition for making the improvements that will get us where we want to go.’”

There are parallels with the blunt realism that Starmer has brought both to Labour’s electoral plight and to Britain’s economic and social decay. Rather than promising an immediate transformation if the party wins power, he speaks instead of a patient “decade of national renewal”.

“That’s the national story that the country is crying out for,” said Stears. “Stop with the grandiosity, stop with the empty illusions, stop with the untruths, tell us how things really are and help us play a part in making those steps forward.”

[See also: What would Labour do differently?]

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