15 October 2023

Weekly briefing: Sparkling Starmer?


Normally, people who want to waste time protesting about Lords reform and proportional representation just vote Lib Dem. But one man took things further this week, storming the stage at Labour conference to shower Keir Starmer with glitter while ranting something about a citizens’ assembly. This ‘idiot’ did the Labour leader a huge favour – rolling up his sleeves and quipping ‘protest or power, that’s why we changed our party’, he handled it like a Prime Minister.

The speech he proceeded to give was his best to date, and an enraptured audience greeted it with 13 standing ovations. But it’s no disservice to his excellent speechwriter, former CapX contributor Alan Lockey, to note that he had a simpler task than Rishi Sunak’s team. It’s far easier to sound ‘hopey changey’ from opposition than it is after 13 years in government.

And beneath the rhetorical sparkle, there was disappointingly little substance. His boldest pledge was to build 1.5m new homes over five years. Few publications will wish him to succeed more than CapX, and he is right to admit that much of the ‘green belt’ is in fact ‘disused car parks and dreary wasteland’. But even this seemingly ambitious target falls far short of the 4.3m houses it’s estimated we need. Governments have been failing to build enough homes for decades, and with Starmer’s own MPs objecting to development on the basis of inadequate ‘snooker needs assessment’, it’s unclear why things should be any different under Labour.

Likewise, there were encouraging words about reforming the health service. As Kristian Niemietz has written on these pages, the NHS cult may finally be weakening its grip on the British psyche. But our socialist health system needs more than gentle criticism, it needs wholesale reform. All Labour are offering is to ‘boost capacity’, offer ‘more appointments’ and ‘pay staff properly’ – in other words make the NHS even bigger and more expensive. It’s become a cliche to say that just as only Nixon could go to China, only Labour can reform the NHS. If current relations with China are anything to go by, prospects for the health service are pretty grim.

Small state enthusiasts will welcome Starmer’s rejection of the ‘cheque book state’ and talking of ‘a more powerful engine, not a bigger car’. It’s a great line, but the policies do not back it up. His two money spinners – taxing non-doms and charging VAT on private schools – give the illusion that only wealthy people will pay more. But considering that neither is likely to raise as much revenue as claimed, the extra public spending he has committed to will end up being paid for with higher taxes all round. Same old Labour. 

One thing that emphatically has changed is the party’s approach to foreign policy. The idea of Jeremy Corbyn being the leader to respond to Hamas’ atrocities in Israel is too grotesque to contemplate. And while it is clear, as Emma Burnell writes, that Starmer’s purge of the Corbynites is complete, we shouldn’t forget that he asked the British people to make that utterly inadequate man their Prime Minister.  

It’s a reminder that Starmer will do and say anything to get into power. There was plenty for people who care about growth, freedom and aspiration to like in this speech. That doesn’t mean we should believe a word of it – all that glisters is not gold.

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Alys Denby is Editor of CapX.