He should tap into voters' sense of national mission and duty. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Why Keir Starmer should study George Osborne

The former chancellor laid the groundwork for tough decisions when in opposition
October 28, 2022

Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s chief minister, famously noted that the question to ask of generals was not whether they were skilful but whether they were lucky. In Keir Starmer, Labour have finally found their lucky general. Just 18 months ago he was in serious trouble, well down in the polls and losing the Hartlepool byelection to a resurgent Conservative party. Two months later Labour retained Batley & Spen, in another byelection, by just 323 votes. Had it lost, Starmer may well have faced a leadership challenge. Then, this summer, he took a huge risk by saying that he’d resign if Durham police found that he’d broken Covid rules. He hadn’t, and he survived.

Now he’s been able to watch from the sidelines as two consecutive Conservative prime ministers have blown themselves up. Liz Truss’s self-destruction was so spectacular that it has left Labour with poll leads comparable to those enjoyed by New Labour in the 1990s, which few Westminster watchers thought would ever be repeated.

As with any lucky general, Starmer has had to put himself in a position to benefit. He has worked hard to cleanse the Labour party of the antisemitism too often ignored by Jeremy Corbyn and, more broadly, to make Labour a safe harbour for voters.

His stolidness has contrasted well with the chaos on the government benches, but even his close advisers wouldn’t argue that voters find him inspiring or have a clear sense of Labour’s vision for the country. By some distance, the most commonly used word about him in focus groups is not “lucky”, but “boring”.

Starmer’s response to Labour’s good fortune has been, well, quite boring. Rather than changing tack, he is warning against complacency, and insisting that the party behave as if it had a poll lead of two points, not 30. It’s understandable that, after 12 years of losing, the first thought is to do everything possible to avoid messing up. But the reality is that Labour is very likely to form the next government and quite possibly with a substantial majority. Replacing Truss with Rishi Sunak may improve the Conservatives’ position somewhat but they will still be well behind, and that’s before the economic pain and further collapse in public service funding on the way this winter. Moreover, while it may well still be two years until the next election, the fractiousness of the Tory party could lead it to implode altogether long before then.

All this means Labour politicians need a shift in mindset. Dull caution may suffice to win an election but it will not be enough to save the country from the state it has been left in. They need to balance their natural risk aversion with rolling the pitch for a government agenda that will have to be more radical than they’re currently letting on. Managing decline and austerity more competently than the Tories is not going to cut it.

Dull caution may suffice to win an election but it will not be enough to save the country

Ironically, their guide here should be George Osborne, who set up his austerity policies in opposition by arguing that because Labour “failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining”, that we were “all in this together” and would all have to take some unpleasant medicine. The first of these catchphrases was dubious. The second was an outright lie, as the public sector and those on the lowest incomes took the biggest hit. But the narrative is one that Starmer can co-opt and make real.

We are now in a real mess, and our failure to deal with the various global crises of recent times is a result of government decisions—including the decision to trash our relationship with Europe—and ineptitude. We really do now need to all come together. Wealthier voters need to accept higher taxes to pay for functioning public services. Older voters will need to accept a major programme of housebuilding even if it means their idyllic views are compromised. Southerners need to accept they have to pay for major infrastructure development in cities in the north of England and Midlands to provide the basis for future economic growth. Leave voters will need to accept increasingly close relations with the EU, but Remain voters will need to acknowledge there is not yet support for free ­movement.

Starmer has been preparing the foundations of this narrative. He has been rebuilding Labour’s reputation for patriotism and national identity after the Corbyn years. Flag and country have been an important backdrop to all of Labour’s majorities, from Attlee’s nationalisations to Blair’s “Cool Britannia”. Starmer has also been developing the theme that the Conservatives have so comprehensively wrecked the country that repairing it will be a long-term effort with much sacrifice involved. He needs to bring this together into a narrative of national mission and duty.

The public are ready for this, after years of Tory psychodrama. People aren’t stupid; they know the position we’re in and that there are no easy solutions. Polling shows they are prepared to pay more tax. The rejection of Truss’s selfish ­libertarianism was total. Sunak’s dry fiscal ­conservatism and austerity is unlikely to inspire. In every focus group there is a desperation for a politician who will show ­real leadership in the face of the decay they see around them. Starmer is not currently seen as that person, and he won’t be until he drops the safety-first approach and accepts the game has changed.