Wednesday, February 28

If Keir Starmer doesn’t seize the moment now, then what is his party for? | John Harris

B.Oris Johnson’s government is in trouble. Since Rishi Sunak’s spring statement, whispers from Downing Street suggest a mood of panic and a continuing lack of answers to the sharpest fall in living standards since records began. The government’s supposed core project of “levelling up” is now nowhere to be seen. Johnson’s latest brief spurt of affected purpose and seriousness came to a close when he compared Ukrainians to British people who voted to leave the EU (and, true to form, then half-apologized via an anonymous source). When the next election comes, it is starting to look like the Tory pitch to the electorate will be singularly cheap and nasty, based on a hyped-up cut in income tax and an attempt to revive the spirit of Brexit, combined with attacks on a much bigger target than Labour: social liberalism and left-leaning ideas in the wider culture, which the Conservatives are already frankly demonizing as an incipient “woke” revolution that must be stopped.

That does not mean the fearsome Tory talent for crushing the opposition will not once again work its wonders. But at the heart of the public mood, it feels as if there might be a mounting realization. Here we are, nearly 15 years after the first stirrings of the financial crash and six years on from the Brexit referendum, and what has fundamentally changed? The disgrace of partygate – which may soon come roaring back – has vividly shown that those in power continue to be arrogant and out-of-touch. People’s everyday struggles are worsening. The effects of inflation on the public sector and the continuing hacking back of local services mean austerity will grind on. After long years of political turbulence, there is a grim sense of being back at square one.

In these circumstances, Labor ought to be doing very well indeed. And yes, Keir Starmer and his party are consistently ahead in opinion polls, while Labour’s leading figures seem to have found a new self-assurance, backed up by a few strong policies: a windfall tax on energy companies, and the £28bn the party says it would spend in government each year on a quasi-Green New Deal. But the party leadership does not feel insurgent or even particularly energized. Starmer never says anything surprising or even that interesting, but instead presents himself as a calm and unexciting alternative to Johnson’s incompetence and flamboyance. Given some of the people giving him advice, it’s not surprising there are echoes of New Labour. But while Blair, Brown et al were full of ambition and vim, it all smells of the party circa 2005, when its election slogan was “Britain forward not back”, and it tried to curry favor with what we would now call “red wall” voters with a bundle of half-ideas called “the respect agenda”.

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What is Labour’s essential story about Britain? Since the new year, Starmer you have been touting his so-called “contract with the British people” based around three abstract nouns: “security”, “prosperity” and “respect”. This supposedly defining idea tends to be fleshed out via single lines that cry out for more clarity (“if we work hard we should also have a right to job security”), or bland claims that few people would argue with (“Everyone should have the opportunity to thrive.”) Very occasionally, he manages to register that is a bit more emotional and inspiring, something he pulled off in January, when his response to Sue Gray’s initial report about rule-breaking in Downing Street included a moving line about the law-abiding majority who “saved the lives of people they will never probably meet” and “the deep public spirit and the love and respect for others that has always characterized this nation at its best. But this tone is never really sustained or developed. Leading members of the shadow cabinet tend to sound cold and robotic; Starmer seems to have resolved to offer the Tories as small a target as possible.

Thanks to a caricature of voters in the kind of seats that went from Labor to the Tories in 2019, and an understandable drive to leave Corbynism behind, the most vivid Labor conception of a national narrative has so far tended to involve flags, the Queen and tributes to the military. But what the party needs to do, repeatedly, is tell a much richer story about the country it wants to run.

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Whether Starmer and his allies have the rhetorical and emotional range to do this is a moot point, but they could try. Building on themes they have already at least hinted at, their basic point could be that Britain is not nearly as divided and rancorous as some people would have us believe, and that the pandemic proved it: we always collectively rise to crises, and they usually bring out the best in us. At this point, a bit of righteous anger ought to intrude, with a point about the new hard right: powerful elements in the Conservative party, shrill voices in the media, and Nigel Farage and his ilk of him.

Brexit is done. Their renewed drive to start a US-style culture war and pick endless fights with “woke” enemies is nasty, divisive and distinctly un-British; given that it also tends to involve denial climate, it also directly threatens our children’s future. We all know what our undoubted national talents need to be focused on: on a green revolution, hungry kids who go to school, bad employers and public services that constantly seem to be on the verge of yet another crisis. The problem is not just Tory incompetence, but the fact that the wrong kind of people are in charge: too privileged to understand people’s everyday struggles, and too consumed by failed rightwing thinking to take us anywhere new.

You can wrap that kind of story in red, white and blue if you want. The key thing is that it would update a narrative that has served Labor well in the past, about national promise and potential being stifled by outmoded Conservatism, and the need to think about the future. In 1945, Labor said that “the nation needs a tremendous overhaul, a great program of modernization and re-equipment of its homes, its factories and machinery, its schools, its social services”. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson warned of the dangers of nostalgia, and said he would replace the rule of an “Edwardian establishment” with “government of the people by the whole people”. By 1994, Tony Blair was pointing out that “our system of government has become outdated, our economy has been weakened, our people have been undereducated, our welfare state and public services have been run down… Our politics need not be like this. Our country need not be like this.” In very different times, most of those words ring true once again.

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There again, looking back to the 20th century gets you only so far. In comparison with its past, the electoral hurdles Labor now faces are huge, and the imperative to co-operate with other parties is another thing that it needs to think – and talk – about much more. But the basics of its position are obvious. For a long time, the excuse-cum-rationale for Starmer and his allies’ cautious, defensive attitude seems to have been that they were establishing their authority and waiting for the right time to strike. It is here, isn’t it? As the Conservatives flounder and fail, and the wider picture gets ever more frightening, the opposition needs to find clarity, energy and urgency, before yet another opportunity fades away.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist. To listen to John’s podcast Politics Weekly UK, search “Politics Weekly UK” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes every Thursday

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