For Keir Starmer, the most effective sound is silence

The pandemic has given the Labour leader a golden excuse for focusing on tone, not policy. 

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The biggest and most important strategic choice in Keir Starmer’s speech today was to say nothing at all: there were no new policy announcements, and the positioning in the speech was entirely in keeping with everything that the Labour leader has done and said so far. His overarching message is, essentially, “Labour: now in a new, more reassuring colour!”

By eschewing new policy announcements, Starmer has guaranteed that any coverage his speech gets – which won’t be much thanks to the slew of new lockdown measures announced by the government today – will be for his preferred frame of “Labour: new, more reassuring, and tougher on security”, which is impressive given that his party has no position on security other than “Lee Rigby’s murder: we’re against it”. 

The novel coronavirus is, in this if nothing else, a gift to Starmer because it provides the justification for his strategic incentive to announce little on policy at the present time. It is too soon to talk about tax rises thanks to the coronavirus recession, it is particularly fruitless to set out policy proposals beyond the ameliorative measures Labour has proposed – extend the furlough scheme, make sick pay more generous – because we simply don’t know what the world in 2024 will look like.

In opposition, policy proposals are at the most useful when they signal something about the opposition – its radicalism, or lack thereof, where it stands on essential issues, and so on – and nearer an election or at times of crisis (a slew of policy proposals by Jeremy Corbyn in the Easter of 2017 put a feel good factor around the inner circle that helped keep them going into the unexpected summer election, while David Cameron’s pledge to cut inheritance tax helped prevent a snap election the Conservatives might have lost in 2007). It’s in Starmer’s interests to keep his powder dry and to announce policy proposals later in the parliament.

But it remains a politically difficult position to hold internally, and at present, Starmer has two things going for him. The first is that he has a majority on Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee and the support of the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The second is that the pandemic provides an excellent real-world justification for his strategic position. If he didn’t have a Covid-19-shaped pretext for his silence on concrete policy, he would need to invent one: and that would be difficult. And the big strategic challenge for Starmer will be what happens if, this time next year, the pandemic has been brought under control: but the strategic imperative will remain in place. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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