General Election 2024

Can Keir Starmer govern for the common good?

The new PM’s tone is refreshing. But on key issues like housing and health, Labour must be vigilant against rampant vested interests

July 09, 2024
Image: PA Images / Alamy
Image: PA Images / Alamy

“Country first” was the very deliberate headline of Keir Starmer’s inaugural prime ministerial address on the Downing Street steps. When he first slapped the phrase on Labour’s membership cards alongside a Union Jack, it had seemed like performative patriotism, intended to draw a line under Jeremy Corbyn’s losses. But as Starmer repeats the phrase in government, now with his crushing majority safely secured, we must entertain the possibility that he means something less cynical and more substantial. Namely, a promise of governance in the interests of the entire community, rather than for any interest within it.

After the long years of dodgy PPE contracts and government via such nasty stunts as the Rwanda scheme, if “country first” is read as “the whole community first,” that would be an almighty change. It is also a change for which the election produced a tremendous mandate. Pretty much all those electors across the south who artfully used their vote to replace Tory MPs with Liberal Democrats are yearning to see the country run in the interests of all instead of some. As indeed are the more than a million extra voters who flocked to the Greens this time. And even if Labour’s own vote in England was underwhelming, in Scotland the party achieved a spectacular surge against the long years of a different sort of grandstanding from the SNP.

The overriding requirement in building a politics of the common good is indeed, exactly as the new chancellor Rachel Reeves has said this week, a readiness to face down powerful vested interests. The next question, however, is whether this Labour government is truly set up to do that. Here the signs are mixed. And ultimately it will be a much more serious test of Starmer’s vaunted ruthlessness, wielded to date only against his already-marginalised factional foes within the Labour party.

Taking on the powerful and well-resourced is never easy. The scope of vested interests to warp public policy to their own ends is heightened when a government, understandably desperate to secure early results, seeks partnership with private industry while also vowing—in Starmer’s phrase—to “govern unburdened by doctrine.”

In our creaking country, the mood of the moment is absolutely in favour of pragmatism. But in technical discussions away from the glare of publicity, whether the question is private pensions or defence procurement, there are always well-funded armies of industry lobbyists dressing up the decisions by which they will profit as nothing more than “what works.” That’s inevitable—it’s their job—and on occasion these interests may align neatly with that of the average voter. But it is a grave mistake for policymakers to rely on that happy coincidence.

There is remarkable continuity between the Starmer shadow cabinet and his real cabinet—almost everyone who retained their seat kept the same portfolio. This can be seen as a sign of Starmer’s steadiness of purpose, but there are also hazards relating to the path to power that many of the new ministers have walked. In opposition, the spokespeople sought to ingratiate themselves with interests that they will now oversee. Reeves’s own toe-curling swerve from arguing that axing the bankers’ bonus cap “tells you everything you need to know” about the Sunak government last October to resolving not to reinstate it this January is one case in point. 

Now the need for ingratiation is, one would hope, over. Looking ahead, what would a resolute politics for the common good look like? And what are the greatest obstacles to achieving it? Let’s consider the two fields which look most fateful for this government’s prospects: housing and health. 

Housing is doubly critical. For one thing, it’s a social emergency. For another, given the self-denying ordinances on Brexit and public borrowing, and with other reforms such as skills taking decades to come to fruition, housebuilding is perhaps the only truly credible lever the government can pull to raise the overall growth rate within a couple of years. Its centrality to Labour’s economic strategy was underlined by it being the chancellor rather than the communities secretary, Angela Rayner, who kicked off the government’s first full week by unveiling planning reforms.

I’m more optimistic than many that housebuilding can jolt the economy out of the doldrums. Back in the 1930s, it was a huge part of the story in Britain’s recovery from the Great Depression. But I also expect big arguments about exactly whose housing—and whose GDP—it is that Britain is building, and at what cost.

Labour has its eye on one overdue reform, which really will shift us towards housebuilding for the common good. Namely, facilitating public purchase of land for development at its original value, rather than, as too often until now, having to compensate farmers and other landlords for the vast “hope value” associated with the prospect that a bureaucratic pen will designate it as good to build on. If bits of the countryside are to be sacrificed for homes, then the whole local community will face that consequence, and so it is also the whole community—through public authorities—that should reap the return. 

Set against this promising proposal, however, are a host of worries about the failure to grapple with housing wealth as a question of distribution, as well as of “growth.” The fear is that in a stampede to get shovels in the ground without spending public money, Labour could end up writing a builders’ charter for creating the most profitable homes, not the most socially necessary. And in the worst case, this could happen through unsightly and chaotic sprawl, rather than carefully judged development. An awful lot turns on what, precisely, the government will ultimately mean by novel phrases such as “grey belt” where it will remove the usual greenbelt protections, as well as how its vague words about “more” social homes translate into numbers.

Beyond getting these details right, there are several obvious planks that any serious “country first” agenda for housing should include. First, it should grip housing demand, through relative increases in taxes on large, under-occupied and particularly unoccupied homes. Second, it should prioritise carefully planned, comprehensive developments complete with public services, taking aggressive advantage of existing powers—community interest levies and Section 106 orders—to ensure that the developers who will profit help fund the necessary social infrastructure. 

Finally, Labour should clamp down on the exorbitant privilege of farmers to put up, with only token justification required, metal barns and other ugly structures in beauty spots—sometimes in the speculative hope that the planning system will years later regard them as “facts on the ground” that can be turned into housing or something else later. In a world where the authorities are designating “grey belt,” the scope for such manipulation is all the greater. Especially now that half the MPs with greenbelt in their patch are Labour, getting a grip on it would be smart politics. It would be a way to show the millions of voters who are passionate about the countryside that the government cares too, and is not a “price of everything, value of nothing” administration.

Turning to the NHS, the very existence of comprehensive and publicly funded medical coverage embodies a politics of the common good. Starmer strikes me as harbouring a very personal commitment to it—enduring ridicule in the right-wing press during the election for his insistence that he would not seek private treatment for himself or his family to jump the treatment queue. His idea of paying NHS staff to put in extra shifts to blitz the waiting lists is entirely in keeping with that, even if the modest scale of the proposal in his manifesto here would make only a modest dent.

The oddity, however, is that while Starmer’s choice of health secretary has been singing from a different hymn-sheet. Wes Streeting goads “middle-class lefties” who mistrust the outsourcing of services to the private sector; he quotes Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor Nigel Lawson on England’s quasi-religious faith in the NHS; and he vows to “hold the door wide open” for entrepreneurs.

All this plays brilliantly to Fleet Street’s lobby corps, which automatically hails every suggestion of private provision as “bold” and “radical,” without pausing to notice that fully 10 per cent of elective operations in today’s woefully underperforming health service are already carried out privately, still less to think through the dangers of private clinics cherry-picking easier patients while leaving the NHS lumped with the complex cases. In the background is the increasingly frenetic agitation of Tony Blair to expand private healthcare, including by patients paying for it directly.

As the prime minister who oversaw the investment that turned the NHS round in the 2000s, Blair has unique authority, but he has long had a dangerous tendency to swallow his own spin about the centrality of private provision to the results. An official once told me how they’d sat in the Number 10 den presenting the then-PM with falling waiting list numbers. He purred about the amazing results of his new Independent Sector Treatment Centres—and nobody had the bottle to tell him that not one of them had opened yet. Now Streeting is bringing Blair’s former health secretary Alan Milburn—who in the years since he left office has had a number of private sector-affiliated roles, including serving as chair of a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) health industry board—to advise him in Whitehall.

You need an awful lot of faith in either the noble intentions of the entrepreneurs you are flinging the “door open” for, or else in the ability of the NHS to get good value out of its sub-contractors to assume this is all going to end swimmingly. Healthcare is, after all, a field where expertise is everything, and where comprehensive contracts are difficult-to-the-point-of-impossible to write, monitor and enforce. Indeed, it is a field where the great bulk of the money will ultimately continue to come from taxpayers.

It is, in sum, uniquely ripe for capture by vested interest. And you are not going to develop a “country first” agenda for the NHS without being vigilant against that possibility.