Keir Starmer has come a long way from his twelve thousand word essay that was published for the Fabian Society in September 2021. Then, he was derided for his lack of ambition and detail in an essay that was perceived by many as long-winded tripe, but which I’m sure few read. Now, he is courted by the CBI, the City of London, Lord O’Neil (who coined the term BRICs), Andy Haldane (former chief economist of the Bank of England) and the final bastion of the global elites: Davos. One day he’s sat next to the Dragon Deborah Meaden at a business roundtable summit, the next he is on stage with Mel B discussing domestic violence. Today, he is not derided but described as the prime minister-in-waiting, which he surely is when the Labour Party is on average twenty points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls? But everybody has their own superpower. The Conservative Party’s is their power to scapegoat, which lifts them from electoral trouble. Europe, migrants, benefit claimants, trade union barons have all been in their firing line. The Labour Party’s superpower is that it achieves electoral failure like its life depends on it. Never underestimate the party’s ability to squander an electoral lead and to be pitiful in responding to the Conservative’s attacks. Just look at the way in which Labour enabled the ‘they caused the Global Financial Crisis’ myth to permeate. To win, Labour needs to have clarity of thought and clarity of vision about why it seeks to govern?
Keir Starmer is now in the business of missions and he outlined five of them in his speech on the 23rd February. Whilst Sunak makes technocratic platitudes his political prop, Starmer is seeking to build a missionary zeal. The real question is what should the Labour Party’s missions be?
One day he’s sat next to the Dragon Deborah Meaden at a business roundtable summit, the next he is on stage with Mel B discussing domestic violence.
Starmer has noble ambitions; within his five missions he wants the UK to have the highest sustained growth in the G7 by the end of Labour’s first term and he does not want any fossil fuels in electricity generation by 2030. These are bold compared to the other three missions, which refer to ‘improving the NHS,’ ‘reforming the justice system’ and ‘raising education standards.’ Labour must remember that what is required is action not ambiguity. The party, if it is to win the next election, needs to possess a visceral commitment to reform and not channel its energy and intellectual capital into vapid, vacuous sloganeering; that is what the Conservatives are for. The party must remember that although it has always been more influenced by Methodism and social democracy than Marxism, its roots are fundamentally radical. The party was founded as an outside agent challenging the status quo, a vehicle for the trade unions to ensure working-class representation in parliament. The party must stay true to its one radical mission: the emancipation of the working people of Britain.
Labour should go into the 2024 general election with a programme for reform. The guiding operational principles of the programme should be based around a highly competitive market economy with a thriving start-up ecosystem; a liberal society with robust protections for minority groups and encouragement of diversity; a strong, proactive state that not only fixes markets but shapes them with a sense of vision and the nation as one community based on the values of individual liberty, equality of opportunity, fraternity and democracy.
The five missions should be centred on primarily building an alternative economic model, which even the great doyen of New Labour Peter Mandelson argued for at Wadham College on the 28th February. This alternative economic model must consist of a multi-decade industrial strategy and a commitment to significantly upgrade the physical infrastructure of the UK to make it the best connected nation in the world.
Secondly, the party must build an aspirational education system and significantly increase education spending as a percentage of GDP. Any nation that educates better than the UK, and many do, will always be able to outcompete the UK as many are. The best way to grow an economy in the long-run is to raise the quality of education in a nation so that the citizenry are fully equipped for the challenges and opportunities of the future.
Thirdly, the party must create a new respect and responsibility charter for the UK’s citizens. For many in our society it does feel as though there has been a breakdown in respect for fellow citizens, institutions and authorities. The state must remind people that they have duties as well as rights and that without order there cannot be liberty. Therefore, new measures such as withdrawing child benefit from parents who are not working to ensure their child stops playing truant from school as Michael Gove has outlined, is something that the party should be leading on. In dealing with crime, Yvette Cooper has harked back to the nineties with her refrain that ‘Labour will be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.’ Though rehashing and reformulating slogans from the nineties is not good enough, her policy to rebuild and reimagine community policing is the right one.
The best way to grow an economy in the long-run is to raise the quality of education in a nation so that the citizenry are fully equipped for the challenges and opportunities of the future.
The fourth mission cannot be about improving the NHS. Instead the system needs rebuilding and to be rebuilt it needs reimagining. The NHS needs a lot more investment and sustained investment over a decade. The Labour Party should offer the Conservative Party a political deal. Labour could pledge to stop campaigning about the NHS as vocally as they do and in return the Conservatives could show their commitment to universal healthcare free at the point of use by agreeing to a decade long funding proposal from Labour. The NHS also needs to not merely operate as a sickness service that is only focused on treatment. It needs to improve at prevention.
The final mission must be about the climate challenges. Labour should pledge to lead in creating a green transition, which would involve decarbonising the economy and ensuring that there is a just transition for North Sea oil and gas workers. This should be a priority for the party, because the lessons from history must be learnt. There was no just transition for the coal miners who sacrificed so much every time they went below ground. They were heaped onto the employment scrapheap when they had to stop working at often profitable mines when they closed in the eighties.
Labour should pledge to lead in creating a green transition, which would involve decarbonising the economy and ensuring that there is a just transition for North Sea oil and gas workers.
Starmer has made important improvements as a leader in terms of his communication skills, delivery, public speaking and policy development. He is completely correct to talk about the imperative of ending ‘sticking plaster politics’ and about how Britain needs to ‘fix the fundamentals.’ But to do this in reality there will need to be an unstinting, unyielding, unrelenting and breathless pace of reform. The Labour Party must prepare the British people for what is needed and what is to come. To do this the party must dare to inspire and dare to lead, it must shape the agenda and be unafraid to dismantle the status quo.