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Voices: Keir Starmer’s caution is damaging Labour’s appeal

The chickens are coming home to roost for Keir Starmer (or maybe the turkeys; it is the week after Christmas, after all). A poll published in the Independent this week found that 30 per cent of Leave voters wish for smoother relations with the EU, compared to a mere 13 per cent who want to maintain some distance with our much bigger neighbour.

Like most plans the Tories rushed through under 12 years of uninterrupted rule, the botched Brexit withdrawal swung a wrecking ball through our economy and left shrapnel amid the political discourse. You might think we could have some faith in an opposition party to fix this mess, particularly when a mass exodus from the jobs market could be solved by welcoming migrants with open arms and work visas.

Instead a timid Starmer, anxious to be bold in fear of an all-out assault at PMQs, went over the red line with a Sharpie when vowing to never introduce freedom of movement to our borders. This is the former shadow Brexit secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, who was the key architect of Labour’s second referendum pledge in 2019, now announcing a total reversal of an old commitment.

It’s instances like the above that prove Starmer’s leadership to be untrustworthy, and Starmer himself unable to grasp the problems as they mount (not to forget his frequent attacks on the left of his own party). When looking back on 2022, Labour voters and members should be feeling buoyant.

Government incompetence has resulted in three prime ministers in 12 months – one lasting for 45 days – polling misery reaching double digits, and hundreds of workers taking to the streets demanding fairer pay from Westminster.

Labour may be enjoying a renaissance kudos to the pollsters, but when deciding what Starmer specifically stands for on policy, scepticism remains a popular choice on the menu. In other words, voters believe the out-of-touch tech bro Rishi Sunak to be more decisive and better suited to deal with the economy compared to the enigmatic former prosecutor.

Take Starmer’s dithering when it comes to striking workers. He seems to have forgotten that Labour’s seed was sown in the trade union movement when the embattled working class became disillusioned with the revolving door of Liberal/Tory governments. Yet at this juncture, the party blushes when challenged on what it will do to quell two seasons of strike action.

The Royal College of Nursing recently staged a walk-out for the first time in its 106-year history, joining their comrades from the mail rooms, train carriages and airport foyers in an effort to be heard. Starmer may have clapped for healthcare workers in the midst of the pandemic, but he now claps back at their demands for an inflation-busting pay increase by deeming it unaffordable under a pressure-cooker economy.

Unlike what he may think, swathes of voters support striking workers and the nationalisation of key utilities. Others wish for moral solutions on Brexit and immigration, not hardline soundbites perpetuated by a centrist leader. Starmer’s fears of a voter backlash, albeit unfounded, are costing Labour’s image of electability among swathes of its natural voter base amid a litany of crises.

At the same time, Tory backbenchers react to their abysmal standing in the polls by pinning the blame on Sunak for dragging the party to the centre and “making a mockery” of Brexit and immigration. However, it’s the lack of radical progressive policies from both main parties as to why the electorate is febrile.

Straddling the centre may have worked for Tony Blair in 1997, so as not to upset the neoliberal orthodox founded by Thatcher and favoured by those he needed to woo over. But times have changed. This year, inflation has reached a crescendo, energy bills are driving people to “warm banks”, and the climate crisis brought scorching temperatures the likes of which our crumbling infrastructure has not seen before.

These issues should be enough to signal to the Labour frontbench that they don’t need to bend over backwards to appease big business. Labour must realise that putting people before profit is the only way of out of this mess.

So, what can we expect from Starmer in 2023? Another year of being in the driver’s seat without the keys to the ignition? We are already witness to that with a government void of speed and direction, so without transformative policies to ease this era of unrest, Labour would be better off tightening its belt for years in opposition.