Keir Starmer in the cafe of Lancing Parish Hall during a campaign appearance on May 27, 2024 in Lancing, England. Picture Credit Leon Neal/Getty Images

Starmer’s next step

The Labour leader has the chance to win trust as well as votes this election

Artillery Row

Yesterday’s election announcement couldn’t have been more perfect for Labour if it had been delivered personally to Keir Starmer by choirs of angels. An impatient, battered and bedraggled Rishi Sunak stumbled through a speech that was largely drowned out by perennial nitwit Steve Bray, all as the rain poured down. 

Labour merely needs to look reasonably polished and competent as the Tories self-immolate

Given the polling it was always going to be a de-facto resignation for the Prime Minister, but it lacked even the usual theatre of a pretended hope of victory. Sunak looked like a defeated man, and when going after Starmer, he sounded like someone telling us off for a choice we’d already made. As indeed, he was.

There is no point in commentators engaging in the fiction of “anything could happen”, in the hopes of restoring some element of excitement or interest in the “race” — this election is a foregone conclusion. The only questions now are how many seats the Tories will lose, and just how massive Starmer’s majority will be. 

The Tories are desperate to complain that Labour lacks a plan, but after 14 years of distinctly unplanned Tory government, nobody much cares. Labour’s thin policy promises make perfect electoral sense, and they would be mad to change course mere weeks out from election day. Labour merely needs to look reasonably polished and competent as the Tories self-immolate. 

So does the conduct of this election, and Starmer’s own words and deeds during it, matter at all? In fact, they matter a great deal. As I have previously written, beating the Tories is no longer the primary concern of a Labour party on the brink of an historic landslide — rather, they need to worry about how they will hang on to those voters, and successfully govern a country that is in a state of growing economic and social crisis. 

It cannot be emphasised enough that the Tories have lost this election, rather than Labour winning it. Memories are short — only 5 years ago, Labour was catastrophically beaten in an election that saw the Conservatives reach deep into Labour heartlands. The fact that Labour, at the time of the local elections, was suddenly competitive in councils like Rushmoor, was a sign not of sudden national confidence in the party, but rather of extreme political volatility. Both party’s traditional constituencies are increasingly unmoored from tribal loyalties. In 2019, for instance, 4 in 10 members of the union Unite voted Tory — and those were the unionised workers. 

Many centre left commentators are blithely greeting Labour’s success as an unmitigated endorsement of their worldview, as if the past decade of electorates running in the opposite direction were just a nightmare from which we are now collectively awakening. Labour’s relative success in 2017, at a time when Theresa May was alienating Brexiteers, and the left were outflanking the Tories on law and order, similarly ended up teaching many on the Left all the wrong lessons. 

Starmer has the chance win back the trust that politicians have spent the last 25 years breaking

Starmer, who has called Labour “the true party of English patriotism”, promised to deal with the small boat crossings, and recently welcomed the anti-immigration MP for Dover into the party clearly understands, far better than media ideologues, what will win over British voters. But gestures and promises are easy during an election, costing nothing, and are tolerated by the liberal left as the price of victory. The temptation for Starmer, once in power, will be to listen to the party machine rather than the nation and, like Blair 25 years ago, pocket the votes and ignore the voters.

That tactic had a limited and damaging shelf life even for a politician as gifted as Blair during an economic boom (just ask Gordon Brown how easy an act that was to follow), and it is an approach that has catastrophically backfired for the Conservative government Starmer is set to replace. Trust in politicians is at an all time low, economic conditions have rarely been worse, and any positive way forward for the country will require incredibly difficult trade offs. Populist parties are still laughed off the stage by the mainstream media, who have already forgotten that such movements have already achieved the feat of taking us out of the EU, despite the massed opposition of most of the British establishment. At some point, unless structural problems are fixed and growing divides mended, they will break through, especially if enough competent individuals, as in Europe, are attracted to a well organised populist party. 

The next few weeks offer a profound opportunity to Starmer. Now is not, of course, the time for dramatic policy announcements or grand plans. Arguably Labour should be better prepared for government — but it’s much too late for that. They will have to do the best they can. But at the level of vision, Starmer can still make a huge difference to his time in government. With the spotlight of an election, he will hold the attention of the public in a way that he never has had the chance to before. And anything he says, promises or points to now will carry authority for months and years to come, should he win a decisive victory. 

Elections are often treated, cynically, as the end of a conversation with the voters. For a few weeks, politicians are in the position of having to persuade the public — once they’ve done so, they switch to “communicating” with them. Even the most well intentioned of politicians fall into this paternalistic trap, seeking to “explain” policy decisions to voters rather than convince them of their merits. Decisions become foregone conclusions, whilst voters who oppose them are treated as ignorant and in need of education. 

Starmer has the chance to change all that, and win back the trust that politicians have spent the last 25 years breaking. He can choose to treat this election as the start of a conversation with the public, especially that section of the electorate which is giving him a chance, but are not yet convinced by the merits of the Labour project. 

Time will tell if Starmer’s patriotic rhetoric is sincere or cynical

What does he need to say, and what does he need to hear? As I wrote in May, he has a ready made answer to former Tory voters who are ready to give Labour a chance — Blue Labour. This tendency may be new, but it is reviving the party’s oldest traditions — the religious, communitarian patriotic soul that once animated the movement, rooting it deeply in the country. Apart from potentially giving Starmer an authentically left wing language of patriotism and belonging, it also offers a coherence and a national scope that most political projects today lack. 

In its essence, Blue Labour’s approach is a revival of class politics for an age in which class is weak, by renewing the national, local and religious solidarities that were always integral to the ability to have a working class politics. Mass migration is to be opposed, not as a cynical response to social unrest and headlines, but because it is structurally hostile to the stronger labour protections, higher wages and improved housing and public services Labour is promising.

Likewise, plans to renationalise rail, and ambitions for a revived British economy will go badly awry if Starmer cannot give them purchase in a persuasive vision of the national interest, rather than technocratic tinkering from on high. Left wing parties increasingly struggle even to define, let alone defend this most basic of democratic ideas — if Labour is to have any hope of competent, let alone transformative government, it must define this idea and stick to it as its most sacred tenet. 

Time will tell if Starmer’s patriotic rhetoric is sincere or cynical, and if he and the party he leads will learn anything from the political failures of previous decades. His first test is whether, when he goes on the campaign trail, he addresses British voters as a unified nation to be won over, or as self-interested individuals to be bribed and flattered. I hope for the best — but expect the worst.

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