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  1. The Staggers
4 January 2024

Can Keir Starmer restore faith in politics?

The Labour leader’s approach comes with risks as well as rewards.

By Freddie Hayward

Keir Starmer’s New Year speech today in Bristol was all about politics. What is it? Why do people hate it? And what makes for good politics?

He used this slot last year to riff on the same theme. Back then, before co-opting the language of “Take back control”, Starmer sharpened his criticism of Westminster being obsessed with the short term at the expense of the national interest. This was, he said, “sticking-plaster politics” – a phrase that now occupies a top spot in the Starmer lexicon. Lobbing a few criticisms at Westminster while channelling the language of Brexit was a smart move for a knight who has been at the centre of British institutions for decades.

But it presented a problem: how do you inspire people to vote for you after criticising the political system itself? How to recognise people’s despair with politics while convincing them that Labour’s promises are credible? Starmer’s speech today sought to reconcile this apparent contradiction. He balanced last year’s stony tone with an appeal to people’s sense of hope. He said people were “right to be anti-Westminster”, and that for some politicians politics was a “game” and a “pastime for people who enjoy the feeling of power”.

But the Labour leader wanted to ward off apathy. He said the “biggest challenge we face bar none [was] the shrug of the shoulder”. His message was that he had the pragmatism, shorn of idealism and righteousness, to solve the problems and that his project will not be “vanity dressed up as virtue” or a “sermon from on high”.

Starmer’s speech wasn’t just about injecting some hope into a hopeless nation. He needs voters to actually go to the polling stations in the rain to elect Labour MPs as well as kick the Tories out. He needs voters to be enthusiastic. (That said, remember that turnout actually fell at New Labour’s 1997 landslide victory, from 78 to 71 per cent.)

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The question that has dominated Labour messaging since the conference (“why Labour?”) was answered with an appeal to establish a politics of service and tilt the economy back towards working people. This was an emotional appeal for people to return to politics. It was yet another speech (think of his one on Tory sleaze in Buckinghamshire last month) deliberately located outside Westminster to indicate his rejection of the status quo. It slotted into his message that he wants to shift power away from Westminster towards the regions.

But ultimately this speech was about tone. It was designed to place a new filter over Labour’s policies, to promise a Labour government that would be less lurid and more pragmatic than the chaos of the past six years. Given the public’s disillusionment with politics that’s smart, but the problem is that Starmer becomes a hostage to fortune. It reminds me of Rishi Sunak’s promise to restore professionalism and decency to politics when he entered No 10. Starmer won’t inherit a party as riddled with scandal as Sunak did. But he faces the same difficult task of ensuring all his MPs act with probity – a promise that a quick glance over the past few decades would put in doubt.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

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