There has been a bit of a commentariat pile-on against Starmer in the last couple of weeks; not just from the usual suspects but from centrist types who might normally be supportive of the Labour leader. Given that as background, one would have hoped that Keir Starmer would have used his speech today on a ‘New Chapter for Britain’ to launch something of a comeback.
Unfortunately, the speech didn’t really work as I think it was intended. On the whole, it felt a little like something the Labour leader had been chivvied into delivering due to recent negative press, as opposed to a set of ideas that had ripened enough for public consumption. Basically, there just wasn’t enough substance in it to warrant a whole set-piece event.
Of course, any Labour leader has to throw his party’s activists some red meat. Blair was actually particularly good at doing this – finding the right attacks on the Tories, promising large spending here and there. Yet one of the ways he managed to win three general elections was by using the activist fodder to buy him room for a more centrist agenda they might not have bought otherwise. You seriously have to ask what the tough stuff Starmer was trying to peddle here was exactly.
Near the end of the speech, there was a glimpse of something real: Starmer’s pledge to create start up loans for small businesses. I’d need to see the details here, but it sounds like the beginnings of Labour promising to do something real for the business community. The language in this part of the speech was exactly the kind of thing he and his shadow cabinet need to build upon in future.
Unfortunately, the rest of the speech up until that point was mostly Labour boilerplate that was wide of the mark. There was the de rigueur ‘Spirit of ‘45’ stuff that every leader seems contractually bound to invoke. You know, the whole ‘The country faced a choice at the end of the war that we’re trying to convince you is remarkably similar to the one we face today’ shtick that never really lands. Yet it was the attacks on the Tories he chose to deliver that rung the hollowest. For Starmer went after a version of the Conservative party that no longer exists.
‘I believe people are now looking for more from their government,’ Starmer said. ‘They’re looking for government to help them through difficult times, to provide security and to build a better future for them and their families. They want a government that knows the value of public services not just the price in the market.’ Has no one in the Labour leader’s office noticed that the Conservatives are no longer the small state, small spend party, and have transformed into a reasonably protectionist, large spending bunch? This is particularly true since the start of the Covid crisis.
Attacking a government that is spending record peacetime amounts for being stingy with public funds lacks sense. Starmer is talking about the Tories as if Remain had won and George Osborne was Prime Minister; like he’s going after the Conservative party he wishes he were facing as opposed to the one he is actually presented with.
To be fair, perhaps this is part of Starmer’s trick – he figures once the Covid crisis is over, the Tories are going to have to start cutting public spending. Perhaps the cuts will be drastic. Then Labour can swoop in and say, ‘You see! The Tories never meant any of this “levelling up” stuff seriously!’ It’s not the worst plan Labour could come up with at this point in time. It’s also a long way from the best. Once again, Labour’s strategy seems to rely on something they expect the Tories to do wrong – as opposed to being proactive themselves.
What Starmer’s speech really did demonstrate once again is that the real gap in British politics is for a genuinely unashamedly pro-business party, one that would be completely comfortable challenging the Tories’ nationalistic protectionism, including but not limited to going after the negative effects of the Brexit deal. This would not argue the rights or wrongs of Brexit itself, just the specific outcomes of the deal (‘Boris screwed it up’ basically). Also, how about challenging the Tories on what they plan to do with the public finances once this crisis is over? Where will they start cutting? If they want to keep spending, how much will they be raising taxes by? These are the Tories’ real weak spots – not that the government isn’t spending enough money as it stands.
Starmer seems to not want to touch any of this stuff with a bargepole. Instead, it appears he want to push Labour to be a little more patriotic and pro-business and hope that’s enough to win the next election. Unfortunately, this approach leaves him with no real ability to attack the Tories in any way that would be genuinely effective.
Yes, there are positive things for Labour to build on in today’s speech. But if this is as good as it gets, the Tories have 2024 wrapped up already.