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12 June 2023

Starmer must dare to reimagine capitalism, not just beat the Tories

The Labour leader might win the election through mechanical problem solving. But can’t we dream bigger than that?

By Charles Leadbeater

With so much of the country’s infrastructure seemingly falling apart, it’s eminently sensible to turn politics into a branch of engineering. Enter the firm of Starmer & Associates, clipboards at the ready, emanating quiet competence. They have plans to deliver on priorities, within the limited budgets set by our highly constrained economic circumstances.

There is a lot of fixing to be done and Keir Starmer’s natural mode is to be a problem solver, one who doesn’t mind being thought of as dull so long as he is effective. Speaking at a conference last week, the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, himself often dismissed for favouring rhetorical flourishes over practicalities, cast Starmer’s strengths this way: “His passion is cold – as cold as ice – but by God it’s effective.”

After Theresa May’s weakness, Boris Johnson’s narcissism and Liz Truss’s recklessness, the country has had enough; people are looking for someone to restore order in our post-Brexit mess. Starmer will not worry about being underestimated by his opponents. He would be among friends: across Europe the populist tide has receded to leave technocrats in charge.

Given where he was two years ago – his leadership hanging by a thread, the prospect of election victory receding into the distance – it would be churlish to suggest Starmer & Associates needs to find a different register to be successful. His advocates argue that his manner disguises the scale of his ambition: to change the country through the abolition of the House of Lords, the creation of a state-led investment bank for the green transition, and a historic rebalancing of the labour market to strengthen the rights of workers.

But could it be that fixing problems will not be enough to carry him through? Problem solvers so often become mechanics; their metaphors become mechanical. They lack the emotional register to connect with people’s yearning for pride and belonging, for meaning in their lives as well as money in their pocket.

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Starmer has a strategy to defeat the Tories. But the problems he faces transcend the Conservative Party. We live in a fractured and unstable world, beset by interconnected crises that leave us in a permanent state of emergency. We have rising inequality, spreading anxiety, decaying democracy and mounting climate crisis, all resonating to the drum beat of conflict. You cannot fix this polycrisis with gaffer tape.

Because we don’t just need a change of government. We need new systems: for work, care, education, investment and government, which will create a more sustainable, convivial and inclusive society.

[See also: What does Keir Starmer stand for?]

In his drive to be respectable and to disavow Labour’s left wing, Starmer is in danger of turning his back on a groundswell of civic creativity. There exist social entrepreneurs, climate campaigners, community wealth builders, progressive investors and local political leaders who are busy creating alternative models for how the economy could work for people and planet. That is one of the big differences between now and 1997. Then, there were only a couple of centre-left think tanks – Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research – and few places to learn from how innovative ideas could work in practice. Now there is a proliferation of possible alternatives. We can learn from examples all over the world.

Take the plans of Finland and Moldova to become circular, regenerative economies, and cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen which have put Kate Raworth’s doughnut economies at the heart of their future (meeting the needs of their population without putting more pressure on ecosystems than is sustainable). Many other places have been inspired by Costa Rica’s world-beating, low-cost community health and social care system Ebais. South Australia, New Zealand and Denmark, meanwhile, are breaking with the conventional wisdom of high-stakes academic testing in schools to develop education systems that put student wellbeing and agency at their core.

There are new models for cooperative community wealth-building everywhere from Preston to Cleveland. They show how wealth can grow from within communities if capital works with them. The ground-breaking Deshkan Ziibi conservation bond in Canada, which incentivises investment in natural infrastructure, is achieving a stronger community and a healthier ecosystem at the same time. There is a reimagining of systems of care inspired by the concept of Buurtzorg in the Netherlands – a system that has delivered decentralised, neighbourhood clinical care to people in their own homes, where the emphasis on relational connections seemingly leads to greater efficiency. And there are initiatives such as the Workers Lab in the US which are helping people to rethink work and safeguard workers’ rights in the era of artificial intelligence.

We forget at our peril that outside traditional politics, with its exhausted demarcations of left and right, people are responding to the polycrisis by searching for poly-possibilities: an array of ways to provide decent work, affordable homes, good food, a sense of belonging and hope for the future. Rather than turn his back on this wave of civic creativity, Starmer needs to understand what it represents. He might well win the next election being a cautious problem solver. He will only change the trajectory of politics, and the country, by articulating a sense of yearning and possibility.

We shouldn’t just ask: “What is the problem, how do I fix it?” Instead, let’s ask: “What’s possible here and who cares enough to create it?” Starmer is great at answering the first, he needs to dare to ask the second.

[See also: Is Keir Starmer doomed?]

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