Does Keir Starmer actually have a vision for Britain?

As we enter 2024 with one Prime Minister, it looks increasingly like we will leave it with another. Official discussions with civil servants in full swing, Labour upstaging the Tories at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a new intimate ITV documentary about the man himself: Keir Starmer seems ready for power. 

Labour’s dominant polls leads across all the nations and regions suggest that a landslide of Blair’s 1997 proportions (or greater) may well be on the cards. While complacency is not the order of the day – this is the Labour Party we’re talking about – it is legitimate to begin probing the depths of Starmer’s plans and wondering what Labour will do when in power. One need only look at Rishi Sunak’s desperate, and probably illegal, Rwanda plan to see that the current government is running out of ideas. Labour might have five ‘national missions’, broadly corresponding to construction, energy, health, policy, and equality of opportunity. Yet, it remains an open question whether Starmer and Labour have a unique vision for Britain, an ideology that can be distinguished from others like that of Tony Blair, Clement Attlee, or Harold Wilson. What does Keir Starmer want Britain to look like? 

MP Jon Cruddas’s new book A Century of Labour takes a bird’s eye view of these differing Labour ideologies and argues that Starmer needs ‘a story of national renewal; one equipped with moral purpose’. Tracing Labour’s pursuit of justice as triply distributional, liberal, and moral, Cruddas cites examples of the party’s achievements in each of these, from the equality of the NHS and the liberty of the Human Rights Act to the decriminalisation of homosexuality. As Clause IV of the party’s constitution asserts that it is a democratic socialist party, Starmer must find his own blend of socialism if he wants his own achievements from government to be celebrated decades after the event. 

Starmer must be wary that ‘economic stability, national security, and secure borders’ – Labour’s current ‘three foundations’ – are not a clear enough departure from current Conservative priorities to themselves articulate a project for national renewal. The ‘national missions’ sound ambitious (and admittedly some of them are) – but they rarely promise the kind of systems-level change the country desperately needs. Case in point: the mission to ‘take back our streets’ with more police is pretty tone deaf to calls for more meaningful, systemic police reform. 

The foundations and missions say nothing, or little, about where money will and will not be spent, and what Britain will look like in 2029. Is the state small or large? Are the rich richer… are the poor poorer? Do we have one of the greenest economies? Is our economy still dominated by London? Do we have more or less immigration? What is our relationship with Europe like? Will my train still inevitably be cancelled? Talk of stability and security, while perhaps reassuring in these worrying times, is neutral on many of these big questions. 

The foundations and missions say nothing, or little, about where money will and will not be spent, and what Britain will look like in 2029

One key priority for any incoming government is combatting the climate crisis. Starmer’s vision here is epitomised by one headline figure: £28 billion. This money, funded by borrowing, will be directed towards a green industrial strategy that includes a state-owned renewable energy supplier. Here there is a sense of the ‘national security’ ethos – developing wind and solar technology here in the UK has been framed by Starmer as a matter of weaning ourselves off Russian oil and gas. This neutralises Sunak’s accusation that Labour have no concern for the UK’s energy security in refusing to grant more drilling licences in the North Sea. Further evidence that North Sea drilling brings little benefit for consumer bills or energy security leaves Starmer with the upper hand here. The £28 billion figure certainly provides comfort to me. It shows that Starmer’s team understands that the mitigation cost will be far lower than the cost of future damage if we don’t massively invest in limiting global heating. Right now. 

But the clear sense of vision here is under threat, with reports suggesting Starmer may opt to ditch his green spending commitment if he sees it as detrimental to Labour’s election chances. He may reframe it as a spending ‘ambition’ rather than a commitment. This would be a mistake for several reasons. For one, it undermines commitments to energy security and leaves the party without a sustainable industrial strategy that will alleviate inequality between the regions of the UK. Secondly, it leaves Starmer seeming unprincipled – and flippant about the climate emergency – in the desperate dash for ever more votes. Labour does not need every single vote to win: 40% and a majority is all but guaranteed. Thirdly, it means yet further disappointment for young people who want to see action on the climate crisis – a betrayal of this historic responsibility only exacerbates the sense that Starmer is not the man to avert Britain (and the world’s) dangerous course to climate breakdown. 

Starmer needs to be careful. He has already U-turned on (more or less) everything he stood for when elected as leader of the party. Policies including the nationalisation of utilities, ending the 2-child benefit cap, support for trade unions, free movement with the EU, and more recently the abolition of the House of Lords and ending NHS outsourcing have all been modified or abolished. Many of these commitments are from so long ago that the public have forgotten. But closer to election time however, Starmer may find that the constant watering down of policy will make him seem spineless and an election victory increasingly pyrrhic. There is no point winning an election to then do absolutely nothing different from before. 

He has already U-turned on (more or less) everything he stood for when elected as leader of the party

Another key area is public services. Labour’s stated aim is to ‘build an NHS fit for the future’ but without committing to tax reform (aside from scrapping Non-Dom status and removing VAT from private schools), it is unclear where the money will come from to turn the ailing ship of the NHS around and eliminate the waiting list backlog. Starmer has refused to countenance a wealth tax or a rise in income tax on the highest earners. This is despite some millionaires quite literally asking to be taxed more! Avoiding spending money significantly limits Labour’s opportunities for radical reform. Increasing taxes on the wealthiest in society could fund more investment in transport, health, and social care, all while remaining within fiscal rules. 

And while Starmer is correct that spending alone will not solve the NHS crisis, the NHS faces a huge multi-billion pound deficit that cannot just be ignored. In education, free breakfast clubs and Ofsted reform are a step in the right direction, but an appropriate level of ambition would demand a review of the Tories’ wasteful academisation policy and explore alternatives to tuition fees for university funding. In transport, Labour’s plan for a ‘radical overhaul’ of the railway system, including renationalisation of operators, promises a discernible change from the status quo. Parts of Labour policy on public services show real vision, but Starmer should articulate these as part of a belief in putting high quality public services back in the hands of the British people. No tiptoeing around the fact that this is about public ownership over private profit. 

Critics could say that the British public does not want the rhetoric of people vs. profit.  But this does not mean Starmer has to fall back onto bland platitudes about national borders. Vision is not just about projecting a sense of purpose to the electorate, but about actually seeing what kind of Britain and what kind of values we want. In a likely election year and with polls so positive, Starmer needs to marry a unique socialist vision for Britain with the electoral pragmatism that has carried him this far. Any less, and there is little chance he will be able to seize the day and start tackling the roots of many of the issues this country is facing. Until we know the ‘how’ and in particular the ‘why’ of Starmer’s leadership, it is difficult to know if he will enter the annals of Labour Prime Ministers who have truly left their mark on Britain. Let’s hope a ‘story of national renewal’ is waiting to be written.

NB: Since the time of writing, Labour have now fully dropped its pledge for £28 billion of green investment.

Image credit: Keir Starmer, 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings, Bristol 4 by Rwendland, licensed under CC 4.0, cropped from original. 

Image description: Keir Starmer giving a speech.