24 September 2021

Keir Labour’s the point

By

The wait is over. True, as publishing sensations go, the arrival of Keir Starmer’s Fabian Society pamphlet wasn’t accompanied by the excitement that greets a new JK Rowling book. But in its own terms it was an important event.

Context is all, and the content of The Road Ahead is less important than the reasons the Labour leader had for writing it in the first place. Because after nearly a year and a half in the top job, and just a few days before he makes his very first ‘real life’ speech to delegates, Starmer’s leadership is in trouble.

There’s no getting away from it. Ask any Starmer-supporting Labour MP and they will confirm what everyone else already understands: Labour is as far away from power as it was even in the darkest days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It is that reality that makes the situation even worse. There seems to have been an expectation among his supporters that simply by not being Corbyn, Starmer would easily take the lead in the polls and hound Boris Johnson’s government from government at the first opportunity.

If that was the expectation, it has backfired spectacularly, with Corbyn’s supporters within the party – including some MPs – enjoying an unhealthy dose of schadenfreude with every new poll.

Starmer is no fool, and recognises the challenge. He may feel that he has been unusually unlucky in the circumstances of his election as leader 12 days into lockdown in 2020, depriving him of the normal publicity and profile a new leader might expect in normal times. Instead the media focus was on what the government would do to manage the pandemic, and Starmer found himself largely ignored except when he messed up.

With the pandemic restrictions now loosening, he clearly sees this autumn as an ideal time for a relaunch. The polls have given him only limited cause for optimism and, determined to be a master of his own fate, he is taking matters into his own hands. Hence The Road Ahead. The title is slightly misleading because a good two thirds of its reported 12,000 words focus on the past and the present rather than the future.

Nevertheless, even in these sections we catch a glimpse of the genuine Starmer, and much of it is commendable. True, being Starmer he never misses an opportunity to talk up his humble working class background, but omits the detail that his father – described in the pamphlet as having ‘worked with his hands… on the factory floor’ – in fact owned his own business, the Oxted Tool Company.

Setting aside this perplexing tendency of successful middle class politicians to fetishise working class life, Starmer’s writing eloquently describes his own moral crusade for equality of opportunity and social justice. And his admission that ‘The Conservatives are not an easy opponent to pin down’ neatly sums up his party’s challenge in seeking to paint Boris Johnson’s government as austerity-loving Tories when the public finances are creaking at the seams due to the chancellor’s pandemic largesse, and when the Government is legislating to ensure that restaurant staff don’t get their tips nicked by greedy bosses.

One of the most crucial phrases is a slap down of his left wing critics disguised in apparently innocuous language: ‘When we win, it is not because the country has come round to our way of thinking but because we have seized the future and moulded it’. In other words, parties don’t win elections by telling voters they were wrong to back the other lot last time. This can be added to the growing list of crimes of which he is accused by his detractors. ‘Educating the voters’ in how wrong their opinions are has always been a staple in the far left’s menu of solutions.

Starmer teases an undertaking to examine ‘the ongoing attempts to import American-style divisions on social, cultural and sometimes national lines.’ But aside from a welcome, and quite effective, demolition of Scottish nationalism, this subject isn’t pursued – perhaps wisely, since the last thing he wants is for his appearance at conference to be overshadowed by arguments about trans ideology and Black Lives Matter.

Courageously, the architect of Labour’s catastrophic Brexit strategy, who endeared himself to the membership by committing – without his leader’s authority – to the inclusion of Remain on the ballot paper of any rerun referendum, has chosen to base a central plank of his political programme on the foundations of Britain’s new post-Brexit status: ‘Labour would set high standards, ensuring public bodies give more contracts to British firms both large and small and design contracts to ensure we spend more in this country. We would report on this annually, with public bodies required to explain how much they are buying from British businesses. All major infrastructure projects currently in the pipeline would be reviewed to ensure we maximise the use of British materials and firms.’

Well, crikey. Not since Gordon Brown’s unwise declaration of support for ‘British jobs for British workers’ has a Labour leader wrapped himself so decisively in the Union flag. What’s significant is that none of this – not a sentence or comma – would be remotely legal if Britain were still an EU member. Offering favouritism and public contracts to British firms would have the European Court of Justice descending on parliament like a tonne (metric measures only) of bricks. Yet here we are, one of, if not the, most enthusiastic supporters of British EU membership, basing his entire economic prospectus on a legal structure that can only be made to work outside the European Union.

The Road Ahead has been criticised for containing no new policies. That is understandable and defendable, from Labour’s point of view, especially in the few days before a conference whose job is supposed to be about agreeing policy. A more relevant criticism would be that the existing commitments given at the end of the pamphlet could have been written by whichever unlucky intern writes the words on the inside of Clinton’s greeting cards.

‘We will always put hard working families and their priorities first’. Woah. Brave. And there we were expecting Starmer to take a stand on behalf of layabouts and benefit fraudsters.

There’s plenty more of that guff: ‘people and businesses are expected to contribute to society’ – no, really? ‘The economy should work for citizens and communities’ – radical. ‘Current levels of [government] waste are unacceptable’ – so, not acceptable, then? Interesting…

Snark aside, there is much in The Road Ahead that is serious and welcome, as well as just a hint of steel that suggests the hard left in Labour may well be about to clash with a more serious and tougher opponent than they had expected. If Starmer can focus on everyday language and practical politics, as he does in this pamphlet, rather than the innocuous management-speak of a PowerPoint presentation that ends it, he may well have done himself more good than harm by writing it.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.