Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership has always dramatised a political paradox. On the one hand, his primary task is to reassure the public that the party it comprehensively rejected in 2019 — Labour’s worst result since 1935 — has changed and can be trusted to govern dependably and without ideological mania.
On the other, Starmer must also persuade the electorate that, if he makes it to No 10, he will deliver transformative change, repair Britain’s faltering public services and extract hope from the bleak post-Brexit political landscape.
The (mostly confected) row in the past few days over his remarks about Margaret Thatcher in a Sunday Telegraph article illustrates the point. In saluting the Iron Lady’s determination “to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism”, he was signalling to disillusioned Tory voters that he understands their concerns and that Labour is worthy of their support.
At the same time, however, he was also suggesting that he intends to be a radical and consequential prime minister: not so much Thatcherite as Thatcheresque. As he made clear on the BBC’s Broadcasting House programme, it is her “driving sense of purpose” that he proposes to emulate.
But how? In a speech yesterday at an event hosted by the Resolution Foundation think tank, Starmer declared that “anyone who expects an incoming Labour government to quickly turn on the spending taps is going to be disappointed”.
Starmer insists that growth will be his ‘obsession’, but then again so did Liz Truss — who lasted 49 days
This is, of course, merely a statement of fact. After Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement last month, an incoming Labour government would have minimal fiscal headroom and — unless it increased taxes or borrowing — find it hard to avoid spending cuts. In this respect, Starmer was trying to manage the expectations of his party and of voters alike.
Yet this warning was sharply at odds with the broader message of the speech. Correctly, the Labour leader identified a daunting structural crisis now threatening the post-war social contract — namely, that the “political consensus that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will get on, a glue that binds British society together, has become nothing short of a lie”.
From such social malfunction, he went on, “political horrors can spring” — not just the enduring success of the populist Right, but much worse. Starmer was right, too, that the problem cannot be addressed without a significant expansion of the public realm. “Government,” he said, “can and must set the mission. Government can and must shape markets, not just submit to them.”
Just so. But, for government to be the “careful steward” that he described and for the “securinomics” that he and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves favour to be more than just political jargon, he must offer more than fiscal caution and confident rhetoric.
This is where his speech left many questions unanswered. In principle, it is hard to fault Starmer’s commitment to economic growth, to partnership with business and to supply-side measures to improve productivity, liberalise planning, and deliver a skills and training revolution.
But such measures, however well crafted, would take years to take effect. The absence of detail and timetables will become less forgivable as the election draws closer: and, as the Labour leader knows, it is still not inconceivable that Rishi Sunak will go to the country in May.
Even if he were to resign today, Starmer could claim to have been one of Labour’s most successful leaders. In less than four years, he has taken the party from the electoral abyss in which it was left by Jeremy Corbyn to the brink of power. But if he is indeed to become its seventh prime minister, he owes the electorate a clearer sense of how, precisely, he proposes to be simultaneously cautious and radical.
Starmer insists that growth will be his “obsession”. But then again, so did Liz Truss, who lasted all of 49 days in Downing Street. At Labour’s conference in Liverpool in October, he promised “a decade of national renewal” — which is to say, at least two terms in office.
And therein lies the problem. The astonishing gift of the Conservatives for self-sabotage may yet be enough to propel Labour into office. But, as Starmer acknowledges, he will need more than five years to deliver the transformation that he promised yesterday. Is there sinew and grit lurking within all the warm words? There is, as they say, only one way to find out.
Matthew d’Ancona is an Evening Standard columnist