Exactly what a Keir Starmer government would look like in terms of policy still remains a mystery to most people. During his leadership campaign Starmer ran on a platform consisting of ‘ten pledges’, which were essentially just reheated Corbynism. Without publicly disavowing them, Starmer seems to have been trying to move away from these pledges toward something that represents a solid break with his predecessor since winning the leadership contest. Yet we still don’t have a clear idea on what that would look like in real terms. Starmer has defined himself so far not on who he is, but rather, who he is not.
To this end, Starmer’s people are talking about a ‘policy blitz’ in the coming weeks. As leader of the opposition, following through on such a thing is a mixed bag at this point in a parliament. Yes, people need more of an understanding of what Labour stands for but dangling out a full policy slate this far away from a general election leaves you open to 1) being defined by your opponents in ways that might be less than helpful and 2) being in the position where if you do land a good policy, the government can just nick it.
Having said that, Starmer’s leadership really does need some intellectual ballast. The message that he is ‘not Corbyn’ has got through, leading to a huge narrowing of the polling gap between Labour and the Tories. Yet if he wants to be seen as the next Prime Minister, he’ll need to define himself in more than negative terms. People need to understand what he would actually do if they handed him power.
Here we come to another Labour legacy problem – as if there weren’t enough for Starmer to deal with already. New Labour were sometimes described as ‘government by think tank’, which is somewhat incorrect given that once they got into power, these think tanks were mostly side-lined in favour of the civil service. That doesn’t change how important think tanks were in the formulation of New Labour’s core ideas.
While in opposition, Blair and his people worked closely with several centre-left think tanks, helping them to overcome what is always Labour’s biggest problem: its insularity and innate intellectual provinciality. Ed Miliband was the last Labour leader to try and get anything out of think tanks, or indeed, any organisation outside of the party’s existing power structure. Corbyn and his people were completely uninterested – they had all the ideas for how to change the world already so why go elsewhere?
With that link to civil society broken by his predecessor, Starmer will now have to proactively try and create a new network. He needs fresh ideas, preferably ones that organisations like think tanks can effectively sandbox for Labour. Yet this won’t be easy, which is probably the main reason we haven’t seen it happen yet. Becoming the ‘Ed Miliband think tank’ in 2011 wasn’t the worst thing in the world given the polling suggested he had a very good shot at becoming the next Prime Minister. The allure of being the ‘Keir Starmer think tank’ in 2021 is far more of a risky proposition, given the rightful doubts people have about Labour’s ability to win a general election again any time soon. Labour have become the victims of their own repeated failures in this regard.
This brings me onto a huge fault of Labour’s and indeed, the whole of the British centre-left over the last decade. There is a constant complaint that too much of the media and civil society is right of centre. This isn’t an argument without merit. But there are clear solutions available. It’s not like the centre-left isn’t filled with people who are wealthy, so why don’t enough of them start more newspapers or news channels or think tanks? If the left needs those things, why don’t its sponsors provide more of them?
If you don’t like the structure of the media landscape and civil society, then use the considerable weapons at your disposal to change them. Endlessly complaining about the way things are while losing another election seems foolish by comparison. The Tories have used the resources available to them much, much more efficiently than Labour has over the past ten years and that has made a huge difference to their electoral fortunes.
Starmer needs to break this negative way of thinking within the Labour party if he wants to become Prime Minister. One way to do this would be to have a think tank or two help define what ‘Starmerism’ might look like. God knows he needs some solid ideas from somewhere.