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How Starmer can fight back

Labour will not win until it charts a new intellectual course
December 9, 2021

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is an enigma wrapped in a paradox. On the one hand, its Conservative opponents veer violently from crisis to crisis, making good Dominic Cummings’ jibe of government in the style of a “wonky shopping trolley.” On the other, the party remains afflicted by self-doubt. Nothing, not even the chaos of repeated Tory corruption scandals, brings with it a palpable sense that Labour is any closer to power.

This is baffling, because on a number of key policy issues public sentiment is shifting in a progressive direction. According to the latest data from the British Social Attitudes survey, support for redistribution is at its highest level since 1995. Since the Brexit referendum, people have become markedly more positive about immigration. Large majorities demand radical steps on climate change. Meanwhile, a Tory government raises taxes to almost record postwar levels in pursuit of spending ambitions couched in the language of regional equity.

Some of the blame for this impasse must be laid directly at Starmer’s door. Slogans and repetition are the most basic tools of any political campaign, whether that be the race for the White House or a year six school council election. Bizarrely, such fundamentals seem utterly alien to the Labour leader’s operation.

Yet while such presentational problems can be fixed before the election, Labour’s inertia also has deeper, more troublesome roots. Over the course of the past year, Labour’s moderate right wing has steadily replaced its soft left as the dominant force within Starmer’s inner circle, culminating in November’s takeover reshuffle. But in looking to the right for inspiration, Starmer is turning to a faction in the throes of a deep intellectual crisis. Despite the fertile ground provided by the twin cataclysms of 2008 and 2020, the great revisionist tradition of Labour’s modernising right appears to have run out of road. There has been no post-crash Anthony Crosland, Roy Jenkins or Roy Hattersley to lean on. Rather, the right seems ideologically pickled by its deference to a late New Labour playbook that was outdated as the party left office.

That playbook contained two axiomatic principles. First, that any successful progressive project must unflinchingly embrace the future. Second, that it should be relentlessly defined against the policy shibboleths of the left. But the question Labour’s right almost wilfully ignores is: “What if these two impulses are irrevocably in tension?”

Nothing brings with it a palpable sense that Labour is any closer to power

A look across the pond shows there is something to this contention beyond mere left-wing wish fulfilment. Yes, Britain is not the US and the Democrats have plenty of their own problems. Still, the fact a lifelong centrist like Joe Biden is attempting to unite both party and country around progressive policy prescriptions such as universal childcare, working tax credits and a green new deal should give Labour’s right pause for thought. After all, both parties share the perennial challenge of uniting a more fissiparous electoral coalition than their opponents. The bet that Biden has made is that this task becomes even more difficult if any leftward shift is automatically ruled out as illegitimate.

Unfortunately for Starmer, the Tories represent a more strategically sophisticated adversary than the Republicans. Hot button issues like climate change will never be ceded fully to Labour. If a universal childcare policy became the price of power, then Rishi Sunak would be forced, willingly or otherwise, to pay it. To win, Labour must junk the tired New Labour playbook. But it must also utilise two other tactics, both of which the right of the party should be uniquely well positioned to deploy.

First, it must draw clear red dividing lines on political terrain the Tories could never contest. Whereas the Corbyn project would struggle to argue that left-wing interventions were anything other than ideologically motivated, Starmer and the right can instead present them as a pragmatic response to events. So, a state-run energy company can be framed as the only logical way a responsible government can protect consumers from terrifyingly high bills when the price cap is lifted in April. A generous post-furlough welfare policy can be built on the pandemic experience and connect with voters who want a welfare state focused on protecting jobs, not merely distributing entitlements.

Second, it should reconnect with the sense of vanguardism New Labour had in spades during its early phase. What was profound about “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” was not just the dose of reality meted out to party members, but how it persuaded the British people that security depends on social justice. Starmer’s best political moment in the last year came in September, when his conference speech likewise argued that fighting misogynistic violence required robust policing. His worst came later that same week, when a lack of opportunistic instinct prevented him from inverting that argument to align Labour’s progressive values with public outcry following the Sarah Everard murder trial.

Alongside the ceaseless quest for economic credibility, these two tasks will define Starmer’s project this year and in all likelihood his election chances. If successful, he can revitalise his prospects and chart a new course for Labour revisionism. The ground has rarely been so fertile.