Voices: With his ‘five missions’ speech, Starmer is not only trying to fool all of the people – but himself as well
If this was the Labour Party launching its general election campaign then they can be relieved that they’ve still got plenty of time to recover, or maybe even try again.
It bore every outward resemblance to a campaign launch. The fancy HQ of the Co-operative Group in Manchester however bore no resemblance to the current state of its fruit and veg aisles – every seat and every balcony was full.
Keir Starmer spoke at the start of the year of his intention to outline his key “missions for government”: the guiding philosophy behind why people should vote for him, and what they would get back if they did.
It’s been a very long time in the making. So it was something of a surprise that he began events with tiresome football banter about Arsenal and Manchester City, which he then took in a surprisingly earnest direction, and for several minutes.
Politics is a lot like football, it turns out. A team, working together, for a shared goal. “Tactics may change, but the mission never changes.” Which is the kind of extended riff you might go on if you’re having an anxiety dream in which suddenly you’re on a stage in Manchester, giving the biggest speech of your life but for which you’ve not prepared anything to say.
The defining motif of the speech was, “Why not Britain?” Why not? Why shouldn’t it be Britain, for example, that leads the way in DNA-based personalised medicine, and quantum computing?
But the question, “Why not Britain?” has only one tangible answer, which is, “I don’t know”, and it was not made entirely clear whether Keir Starmer knows either.
Oh to have had a bitcoin for every time I have heard a politician read out the latest exciting technological development and how it’s going to change everyone’s lives (as if it’s got absolutely anything to do with them).
All such politicians, by the way, have never amounted to very much. Earlier this week, Tony Blair and William Hague published a report, with clear details about exactly what a government could be doing to take advantage of the ever-quickening technological revolution.
Neither of those men are the kind of politician who would ever just namecheck exciting tech and leave it there. The kind of politicians who do that are Matt Hancock and Rebecca Long-Bailey. It is not immediately clear, at least on today’s evidence, where Keir Starmer fits in on that spectrum.
The first of these five missions, which have been months in the making, was, it turned out: “To secure the highest sustained growth in the G7.”
That’s it. That’s the main pledge. To make more money than France, than Germany, than America, than the rest. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that it perhaps has not dawned on Labour that a significant cause of their enormous current good fortune is a complete national exhaustion with a man who made fatuous promises about being “world-beating” in this, that and the other. Johnson was, and is, a Brexit fantasist, whose absurd promises were found out.
On this evidence, Starmer is arguably something worse. He, his shadow chancellor and all the rest of them, all warned – quite correctly – that Brexit would have severe economic consequences, that it would harm the UK’s competitiveness, that being outside the single market would only be harmful for growth and no amount of alternative trading arrangements could compensate for the damage done.
All of those warnings were, and are, correct; but for some reason they don’t matter anymore. Now we’re just going to do better than everybody else because Keir Starmer says so, just so long as we ignore all of Keir Starmer’s many years of entirely accurate warnings on the subject.
Politicians have long been warned against trying to fool all of the people, all of the time. On this evidence, it seems like Starmer is not only trying to fool all of the people, but himself as well.
Anyway, the highest sustained growth in the G7, once we’ve somehow achieved that, is going to deal with missions two and three: rebuilding the NHS, and making Britain’s streets safe again.
“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” he said, before letting out a little laugh. “Now you might have heard that somewhere before. But it’s true.”
I have spoken, over the years, to no fewer than three current Labour MPs, who remember hearing a young Labour shadow home secretary first say those words in 1991, and knowing that this was a man who meant business. There was no little chuckle as he did so, no half embarrassed amelioration of the moment.
Missions four and five are to “break down barriers to opportunity at every stage for every child” and to make Britain a “clean energy superpower”. By which he really does appear to mean a zero carbon national grid by 2030. He said he’s been told by various CEOs that it probably can’t be done, but he disagrees.
He knows that these missions stand in contrast to Rishi Sunak’s five point plan, revealed in January, which have been somewhat ridiculed on the basis that most of them are forecast to happen anyway, principally “halving inflation”, “growing the economy” and “reducing national debt”.
But it is by no means clear, at this exhausted and exhausting moment in time, that people won’t prefer to see clear progress on attainable goals. Reports on Thursday morning suggest that by December inflation may be at 2 per cent. Should that happen, slow, steady, realistic Rishi may not be such a disappointment in the public eye, and it will be Keir Starmer who’ll be handing out empty promises about being bigger and better than everybody else that people just might not believe.
Which is not to say they’re not deliverable. Underestimating Keir Starmer is a big mistake, made all too often. He’s not where he is, in every respect, by accident. In some of his recent speeches he’s spoken about being weary of how Westminster works. That it’s all talk, and no one actually does anything. He is clearly an executive-minded person; the days of government-by-columnist are, pleasingly, over.
He had made enormous progress, but the next phase is by far the hardest. He still has to talk his way in to 10 Downing Street, via the voters’ affections; and he’s still got a long way to go to get there.