Steven Fielding

Is ‘Starmerism’ an empty project?

Is ‘Starmerism’ an empty project?
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Keir Starmer is an extremely methodical politician. Like the mills of God, he might grind slow, but he grinds exceedingly small. Once the Labour leader sets his mind to an objective – such as ridding his party of the taint of anti-Semitism – he is implacable. Just ask the Corbynite wing of the party, who have seen Corbyn suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party and Rebecca Long-Bailey exiled to the backbenches.

In the same way Starmer has unremittingly set out to win back those Red Wall voters Labour lost to Boris Johnson in the 2019 general election. We have consequently heard much of his belief in the family and of his patriotism: he is now rarely seen without a Union Jack somewhere close by. Starmer also set out to expose the government’s many mistakes during the Covid crisis, thereby demonstrating his firm grasp of the big issues and qualifications to be Prime Minister.

All of this has had a positive impact on Labour’s position with the public: from 20 points behind in December 2019 the party has drawn level with the Conservatives. But the Labour leader’s approach has also caused frustration within his own ranks, with some who supported him as leader expressing concern that he was being unduly defensive and pandering to cultural conservatism. ‘Starmerism’, one such alienated figure recently claimed, looked very much like an empty political project.

But the Labour leader always knew that imposing his will on the party, waving the flag and demonstrating competence would never be enough. As Starmer said last autumn he would soon outline Labour’s ‘positive vision for the country’.

With millions of Britons now being vaccinated the country is looking forward to life after Covid – but also to an uncertain future given how fighting the virus has laid waste to the economy. The Johnson government is itself divided over how it should Build Back Better. So, now was the appropriate time for Starmer to go positive with what was trailed as a major economic speech. But what kind of a vision for Britain did it outline, and what did it say about ‘Starmerism’?

For students of the Labour party, Starmer’s is a very familiar vision. As was always likely he pitched himself somewhere between Blairism and Corbynism – an admittedly wide political space and one occupied by Ed Miliband during his ill-fated leadership. Starmer argued that so many Britons have died from Covid and the economy been so badly hit because of the society created by Conservative governments since 2010. Austerity had, he asserted, weakened the ‘foundations of our society’ and made lives ‘cheaper and shorter’, causing inequality and economic insecurity to rise. Britain as a result was ill-prepared to meet the crisis. What Starmer sees as the Conservative obsession with the short-term and fear of interfering with the market therefore takes a big hit.

The Britain that should emerge from the Covid crisis, Starmer said, was one that must be more secure and prioritise the reduction of inequality through a more active and empowering government. But Starmer’s case for a bigger state was not anti-business. The Labour leader said he wanted to create a ‘new partnership’ with entrepreneurs, ‘one where we have high expectations of business and where business can have high expectations of Labour’. This relationship was he claimed ‘pivotal’ to his leadership and to the success of what he did not quite call a New Britain.

This was an inevitably Panglossian vision, one in which Starmer claimed business was now ready for such a relationship with government. This was also a vision in which the pursuit of equality was both a moral and economic imperative: it was not only simply wrong for so many to languish in poverty but also inefficient, as a dynamic economy needs all of Britain’s talents to be mobilised.

It was also a vision Ed Miliband – the leader many Blairites claimed was ‘anti-business’ and some Corbynites attacked for being ‘neo-liberal’ – would have been comfortable. Indeed, its core argument would have been familiar to Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and even – some of it – Tony Blair.

This was, however, just a vision, and one Starmer will need to persuade many still-sceptical voters they should embrace. It was very light on policy: how for example will Labour deliver on his promise to ensure ‘people don’t have to leave their hometown to have a chance of getting a good job’? But that is for the future.

Some might think that revisiting many of the themes outlined by Ed Miliband must mean Starmer is doomed – like Miliband – to failure. But in arguably in trying to reset Labour’s relationship with the market and the state after the New Labour years Miliband had the right diagnosis but tried to apply it when the patient was not ready for the medicine. Too many blamed the New Labour governments for austerity and did not care for Miliband.

Starmer has to hope that the Covid crisis has made the public more receptive to his vision – and that he has the skills to persuade them of it. We should now see a more assertive and bold Keir Starmer for his speech effectively announced that Labour’s campaign to win the next general election has begun.

Written bySteven Fielding

Steven Fielding is professor of political history at the University of Nottingham and is writing ‘The Labour Party: from Callaghan to Starmer’ for Polity Press.

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