5 January 2024

Whatever he says, Keir Starmer is no Westminster outsider


In his New Year speech in Bristol, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer sought to portray himself as an insurgent, a change candidate. ‘I will say, you’re right to be anti-Westminster, right to be angry about what politics has become,’ he said. 

Rather odd, considering how used we are to him stressing his establishment credentials and how cautious and responsible he would be. 

Yet it is not the first attempt at reincarnation. Four years ago, when Sir Keir Starmer was standing to be the Labour Party leader, he pitched himself as a bit of a rebel. His video message to the Party membership featured plenty of archive footage of police clashing with strikers and protesters. The pitch left little doubt whose side the plucky young human rights lawyer was on. 

‘Keir defended the print workers at Wapping,’ we were told. ‘He was in the crowd that night when police on horseback charged into the peaceful pickets.’ Next a graphic proclaimed: ‘International Dockers struggles in the eighties. Workers of the world unite.’ We were assured: ‘He was there for the dockers in Dover.’ Then came testimony to his ‘solidarity’ with Greenpeace activists and striking Miners. 

It wasn’t just trade union militants. ‘Keir took the last Labour government to court over its decision to deny welfare benefits to asylum seekers,’ the message continued. ‘He battled alongside Jeremy Corbyn against the Tory Brexit and Tory plans to sell off the NHS.’ 

Then Starmer himself came on to declare he had ‘spent his life standing against the powerful’. He then added: ‘We can put factionalism and division on one side and unify.’ This was accompanied by a shot of Starmer embracing Corbyn – who was kicked out within months. 

Having won that election a huge effort has been underway to give an opposite message. Project reassurance. It may well be that Sir Keir’s monotone, droning delivery meant he was always going to sound boring. But he could easily have afforded the services of a voice coach. I am convinced the dullness is part of a cunning strategy to boost Conservative abstentions. By maintaining a boring delivery of a boring message he plays to his strengths. 

The mistake in his speech was the claim he was offering something more dramatic. Yet there were no new policies offered. 

‘I will restore standards in public life with a total crackdown on cronyism,’ he pledged. Does anyone really believe that? Sir Keir himself was appointed Director of Public Prosecutions under the last Labour government. Another Labour government could be relied upon to ensure its allies are installed to the plum Quangocrat appointments. 

Starmer said that ‘government in this country is too centralised and controlling, and because of that, too disconnected from the communities it needs to serve.’ He went on: ‘Yet despite hoarding all that power, it also lacks ambition. A view of the potential of government that is content just to mop up problems, after the fact, armed only with a big state cheque-book.’ 

Many conservatives would agree that the government has been too ready with its ‘big state cheque-book.’ They might also feel that Starmer had a point when criticised ‘the so-called party of business which now hates business, that boasts about tax cuts, while raising taxes higher than any time since the war.’ 

But where has Labour been over the last four years when it comes to specifics in their objections to high state spending and taxation. Which taxes would they cut? If they agree the tax burden is too high would they pledge to reduce it? By how much? When asked about this after his speech, Starmer offered no undertakings. He implied the tax burden could increase further. ‘Any tax adjustments have to be fair and they have to be affordable,’ was all he would say. 

Which items of ‘big state’ spending would they cancel to fund these tax cuts? If they feel the Conservatives are too anti-business how would Labour be pro business? Is the burden of regulation part of the problem? If so, which regulations would Labour scrap? Don’t hold your breath. His speech pledged ‘stronger workers’ rights’ which presumably would mean more red tape that would discourage firms from recruiting. 

Or perhaps Labour regards being pro-business as handing out subsidies, a corporatist approach. In his leadership video back in 2020 he promised to end the ‘failed free market model.’ In his speech yesterday he said there would be a ‘proper industrial policy.’ Evidently, this will replace the free market but won’t rely on a ‘big state cheque-book.’ How intriguing. 

All the signs are that we will sleepwalk into a Labour government. You can hardly blame Labour for a determination to keep the snoozefest going right up to polling day. What they would actually do in power is anyone’s guess. But I wish they would stop insulting our intelligence by this pretence to have some clear bold plan for revolutionary change.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

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