What is the alternative vision that Keir Starmer offers? It is a question that has been asked with greater urgency in recent days as the success of the vaccine rollout becomes apparent and, with it, the prospect of the Conservatives getting a popularity booster.
Starmer’s speech on Thursday was timed to set out his stall before Rishi Sunak unveils the government’s budget for recovery on 3 March. But it is also an effort to respond to the growing suspicion that the Labour leader is a man armed with a well-laced pair of walking boots but no map. He may routinely secure a win at PMQs, but to what end? Without striking designs of his own, Starmer resembles the onlooker who points out “you’ve missed a bit” to a prime minister busily painting the house.
In his speech, entitled “a new chapter for Britain”, Starmer endeavoured to set out a vision. It is one that looks back for inspiration to the Britain of 1945. At such times, it is impossible not to admire the narrow conservatism of Britain’s Labour party, whatever the challenge always drawing an analogy from a six year period of history between the Beveridge Report of 1942 and the creation of the NHS in 1948. Did anything ever happen before or after?
Yet, Attlee’s New Jerusalem represents one of the few periods in British history that tick both boxes of being a familiar reference point for most of the population and also broadly uncontentious. It is not really true, as Starmer implied, that Britain is coming through an ordeal comparable to the second world war. But seeding the idea that, as in 1945, only Labour can win the peace is a neat conceit. For, just as Labour’s victory in 1945 sought to indict Tory “guilty men” whose inactivity had ill-prepared Britain economically, socially, and militarily for the peril it only narrowly survived, so in his policy speech did Starmer aim to put ten years of Tory-led government in the dock for ill-preparing Britain for the challenge of Covid.
The Tories cannot be trusted to build the post-Covid dream. In one of his lamest lines, Starmer said of the government that “they want to Build Back. But I don’t want to go back.” Well, except to 1945. His wider point was that Conservative attitudes to the role of the state are innately wrong-headed – “It’s about an ideology that’s failed” he said, “the inevitable consequences of a decade of decisions guided by the notion that government can’t interfere with the market.”
Whatever may be said of the Cameron-Clegg years, the Johnson premiership has distinguished itself for interfering in the market to an extent that might even have impressed Attlee’s chancellors, Hugh Dalton and even Stafford Cripps. Far from restoring mid-Victorian orthodoxy come March, all the indications are that the big state will prove to be – in the annoying expression of the moment – the new normal. and the Tories will seek to own it.
In his speech, Starmer called for no new taxes and for higher spending, extensions of the furlough and universal credit uplift and for more generous terms for business loan repayments. There was a time when the Conservatives would have held up this promise of jam today, jam tomorrow and jam forever as proof of Labour’s lack of seriousness.
Starmer resembles the onlooker who points out “you’ve missed a bit” to a prime minister busily painting the house.
Yet, how did the Conservative party co-chairman, Amanda Milling, respond? “Keir Starmer said this speech would deliver his big vision for the future of the country, a ‘policy blitz’ with ideas to rival Beveridge and relaunch his failing leadership” Milling marched him up to the top of the hill, before nudging him down the other side, “but there are only two new policies – one taken from the Conservatives and the other from the CPS, the think tank co-founded by Margaret Thatcher.”
Specifically, Milling was talking about Starmer’s (or, if you prefer, the CPS’s) proposal for a British Recovery Bond (although given how cheap and easy the British government has found it to borrow money it is not clear why such a citizens’ bond-raising exercise is so urgently required) and start-up loans for new businesses which Milling interpreted as a repackaging of a policy that has been in place since 2012.
It is politically astute of the Tories to portray Starmer as a man without a plan. It is not plausible to paint him as continuity Corbyn – the predecessor he has suspended from the party. Compared to Corbyn, any successor can only seem more middle-of-the-road and it is sensible therefore to suggest Starmer is vanilla flavour Labour without an original idea in his head. That charge has the additional benefit of goading Starmer’s Labour Left critics about his lack of radicalism, enhancing his discomfort all the more.
For good or ill, Johnson and Sunak cannot be accused of being men without ideas even if it is pandemic more than predilection that has forced such creativity upon them. Rather than seriously challenge the direction of Sunak’s budget next month, the best Starmer can do in advance is identify the bits where he can say “this is what Labour has been calling for” – which is also why the Tory rebuttal that such calls are not even original is an early gun-spiker. The retrenchment will come, but not yet.
The problem with Starmer’s invocation of the spirt of 1945 is that back then voters felt that they understood what Labour was promising but were hazy about what the Tories offered – would returning Mr Churchill bring a return to the 1930s or merely a less generous version of the Beveridge Report? The messages were mixed. But Sunak and his shadow, Anneliese Dodds, are not totems for alternative polls, with one of them representing intervention and the other drifting between orthodoxy and muddling-through.
If we must foresee the future by reference to the past, the better analogy may be the so-called “post-war consensus” of the 1950s in which the electorate concluded that the Conservatives were better than Labour at making interventionist politics work efficiently and effectively whilst letting the economy recover. No Labour leader readily references the 1950s. But the time may have come to ponder its lessons all the same.
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