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What does Keir Starmer’s Labour Party stand for?

(Alamy)

4 min read

Despite enjoying a sustained and commanding opinion poll lead, half of voters still do not know what Keir Starmer stands for.

Such uncertainty is partly due to Britons’ reluctance to engage with politics until they must, but Starmer’s impenetrability is something observers think is unique to him as a person. 

When he campaigned to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, journalists often asked Starmer whether he was a Blairite or Corbynite. His response was that he was neither and that his leadership was not going to be shaped by any “historical figures”. This answer left few satisfied and today, commentators routinely complain about Starmer’s lack of vision. 

Starmer faces an array of thorny tasks which do not easily lend themselves to glibness

The Labour leader has certainly failed to encapsulate what is he about in a compelling phrase. Starmer faces an array of thorny tasks which do not easily lend themselves to glibness. His opacity has been, to an extent, structural rather than personal. 

First, Starmer needed to recast a party which – despite having lost its fourth election in a row (the last being its biggest defeat)  – still felt great affection for his predecessor who brought it to that pretty pass. Secondly, to win a future election, Starmer had to retain the support of youngish, culturally liberal Remain voters while at the same time winning back older, traditionally inclined Leave voters. Finally, Covid, the war in Ukraine, and the repercussions of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal created a bleak and bereft Britain unrecognisable from the time when Corbyn, let alone Tony Blair, led the party. These events all helped deliver a poll lead Starmer could only have dreamt of when he first became party leader, but any government he leads will be faced with problems that are the stuff of nightmares. 

Starmer is faced with an acute paradox. Many in his party believe Britain’s difficulties require radical solutions but Labour’s poll lead is fragile and fractious. If those who voted for Corbyn in 2019 are impatient for change, many of the party’s new supporters gave Johnson his 80-seat majority and are more cautious. Rather than grappling with and resolving that paradox, Starmer thinks it best, this side of an election, to stand astride it. 

He promises “fundamental change” to solve Britain’s crises, but the kind a sceptical electorate can believe in. This means: sound money, notably reducing government debt while not increasing taxes (except in modest ways), and promising some continuity with Conservative policies, most importantly with Brexit. 

The very traditional Labour promise of a more equal Britain nonetheless remains. Indeed, Starmer has spoken of “smashing the ‘class ceiling’ that holds working people back” once in power in an echo of Corbynism. 

As part of this, Labour will advance plans described by deputy leader Angela Rayner as representing “the biggest levelling up of workers’ rights in decades”. Improved funding for the NHS and schools have also been pledged, although this won’t properly address a decade of under-resourcing. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has confirmed this will only come through growing the economy – another traditional Labour objective, and one Blair would endorse. Starmer’s real promise of transformative change lies in his five missions, most of which he will need more than one term to achieve. The most important of these is the £28bn programme of green investments to create new jobs and deliver net zero. 

Rishi Sunak might disagree, but a prime minister enjoys more opportunities to manipulate events than any opposition leader. If some question how the growth needed to promote the change Starmer promises can be achieved within a framework of sound money, that can only be answered in government. 

It is only from Downing Street that Starmer can finally and irrefutably reveal what his Labour party stands for. It will be one defined by its dilemmas or one that transcends them. 

 

Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham and currently writing a book on the history of the Labour Party since 1976

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