Since becoming Labour leader, Keir Starmer has tried to establish in as many voter’s minds as possible the idea that his party has changed irrevocably from the Corbyn era. This has mostly taken the form of responding to what the government does by trying to label it as blundering, contrasted against Starmer who is alternatively painted as a paragon of competence. What has been notably missing though is any real idea of what a Labour government under Starmer might actually do in terms of policy. The truth is, this doesn’t actually matter, at least for the time being. The Labour leader not only has the space to continue being vague on policy, he should carry on doing so.
The platform Labour will run on during the next general election campaign will necessarily be reactive; a direct consequence of what is going to happen in the intervening period. We are in an incredibly tumultuous time politically, with so many questions left to be answered.
Will Brexit be judged a success or a failure? Just how statist is the current government going to become? The answers to these queries will form the backdrop to Labour’s manifesto making process. If the Tories continue to spend big, Labour can afford to pledge to do the same, making their pitch around how they will be more competent in running a large state. If Boris is gone by then and the fiscal conservatives have taken control of the Tories again, this will change that equation considerably. If we have a no-deal Brexit and it creates an unstable outcome, Labour can offer to fix the situation; if we end up with some arrangement with the EU that at least works on the surface, the room to talk about this shrinks greatly for Starmer.
A big part of the reason Labour can afford to wait before laying out their policy agenda is that the public don’t pay attention until the election campaign anyhow. Remember Ed Miliband getting big headlines after 2013 Labour conference for his energy price freeze policy? If you do, you’re a politics nerd; although it made a lot of waves in 2013, it didn’t help Labour a year and a half later at the polls.
I would also point to the 2017 general election, when everyone inside the Westminster bubble (myself included) was sure the Tories were set for a landslide victory. A big part of why we thought that was because we had all seen a lot of Corbyn and May already and assumed that the general public had absorbed at least a reasonably percentage of the same information on both leaders that we had. Turns out May and Corbyn were both relative unknowns to a huge portion of the electorate and this seems to have had a massive effect on the result, with minds being made up only in the last fortnight of the campaign.
So the people baying for Starmer to have a set of communicable policies as soon as possible, ones which he then bangs on about every time he makes a public appearance, aren't representative of the general public. They are looking at politics every single day and seeing a large, gaping hole where the official opposition’s policy agenda should be.
In electoral terms this is chimera; the number of people who really care about what Starmer’s policies are right now is insignificant in electoral terms. All he would be doing by offering them up for public consumption is give the Tories a stick to beat him with. A means of cutting into the image the Labour leader is trying to create for himself as the sane, competent one against a prime minister who is out of control. He would also be allowing his enemies on the left of his own party ammunition against him as well. Starmer could commit to renationalising all industry and the left of Labour would try and label it as neoliberalism. He’s got enough internal fights to deal with as is – no need to start another one for no good reason.
What Keir Starmer is doing in terms of being mostly reactive, responding to what the government is doing as opposed to proactively laying out his stall, is not only fine but the right thing to do – for now. Eventually, he will obviously need to flesh out what the government he wants to lead will actually do once it is in place. The advantage for the Labour leader is that he doesn’t need to do that for what in political terms is a very long time. As ever, he should ignore those on the outside telling him he’s got it all wrong and stick with his long-term plan.