17 September 2023

Weekly briefing: Starmer’s solo act


Labour published their conference brochure this week, with a wistful picture of Keir Starmer making it look as if it was, as one journalist put it, ‘a 1998 solo album of songs about why he left the band’. And if the polls are correct, it seems increasingly likely the leader of the opposition is set to become Britain’s frontman.

The important question, then, is what will he do when he takes to the stage – stick to the classics or try experimental new stuff no one likes? Based on recent policy announcements, the answer appears to be a bit of both.

On immigration, Starmer says he will ditch Conservative plans to ban people who arrive in Britain illegally from gaining asylum and deport claimants to Rwanda. Instead, he says he will ‘smash the gangs’ by applying laws used to target terrorists to people smugglers and negotiating a returns agreement with the EU. Understandably, this former Director of Public Prosecutions is looking at the problem through a law and order lens – but as his predecessor knew, you have to be tough on the crime and tough on the causes of crime.  

Gangs are parasites on a basic human instinct – as long as people yearn for a better future there will be those who want to come to Britain. The fact that so many are willing to risk their lives proves what a prize this nation represents. Therefore any solution to the small boats crisis has to involve some aspect of deterrence. Starmer’s plan abandons that principle entirely. And as my colleague Karl Williams says, all a deal with the EU amounts to is rebranding illegal migration as legal. Tough on crime indeed.

What Starmer’s really doing here is triangulating – trying to sound serious about an issue he knows voters, particularly in the ‘red wall’, care about while also appealing to Labor’s bleeding-heart base and avoiding making any difficult decisions into the bargain.

The same dynamic is at play with Labour’s efforts to block the government’s plans to change rules around water pollution to allow more housebuilding. Our Editor-in-Chief Robert Colvile has dismantled their arguments against the reforms here, and now the opposition have brought forward their own exciting idea to deal with the issue. In an amendment to the Levelling Up Bill, Labour propose a consultation on updating nutrient neutrality laws to increase housebuilding ‘without any detrimental impact on the natural environment’. That’s not a policy, it’s a delaying tactic. And it gets worse when you examine the detail – the list of matters to be included in the consultation is a mixture of the vague and the inconsistent. As one housing expert says, it’s going something even by Labour’s standards to flip-flop within a single clause. 

The trouble for Conservatives is that whatever they’re doing on big challenges like small boats, sewage and housing doesn’t appear to be working. This makes Labour’s ploys look credible simply because they are different. Starmer will likely win the next election on that basis, but he can’t govern that way.

Given his form, it’s tempting to think the Labour leader’s schemes don’t merit too much scrutiny because he will plainly U-turn if he gets into power. But that’s a dangerous conceit. As Morrissey sang in the 90s, ‘The more you ignore me, the closer I get’.

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Alys Denby is Editor of CapX.