Voices: The vacuum at the heart of the next Labour government

Keir Starmer keeps telling us what he believes, often at length. There was the 14,000-word Fabian pamphlet 18 months ago. In the past week he has given a speech about “mission-driven government”, and written another 3,000-word article, on which The New Statesman has put the headline: “This is what I believe.” He has even written a book, although there is no date for its publication, and my sources have fallen silent on who is working on it and what state it is in.

Yet we still don’t know what he thinks. We may be clearer about what he doesn’t think. He no longer thinks that Jeremy Corbyn is his friend, as he will not permit the former Labour leader to stand as a candidate at the next election. But why the change has come about, and what Starmer now believes, are riddles wrapped in a mystery inside some verbiage.

This was illustrated by the return of Luciana Berger to the Labour Party. She left, to help form Change UK, because she felt that the party was hostile to Jews. Now she is back, agreeing with the Equality and Human Rights Commission that Labour is no longer enabling antisemitism. But that leaves a problem for Starmer, because he hasn’t explained why he stayed in the shadow cabinet while Berger felt she had been hounded out.

Ian Austin, another former Labour MP, was unforgiving: “Starmer and too many others were silent and supine when Berger and others needed their support.” Austin accepts that the Labour leader has done the right things to deal with antisemitism since, but is unimpressed by Starmer’s claim to have opposed Corbyn at the time.

Starmer finds himself voiceless, because he can’t say that he hung around because somebody sensible had to, to take the party back when Corbyn eventually failed. That would mean admitting that he pretended to be what he was not, either for the sake of the party or for his personal ambition. Awkward, not least because at the time he sounded genuinely enthusiastic about large parts of the Corbyn programme – which he has now junked – describing the 2017 manifesto, for example, as a “foundational document”.

That would matter less if he had since set out a credible account of what he really does believe now – but he has not. The New Statesman article is interesting for two things. One is that it contains a paragraph of pure focus-groupery. He says: “Many people ... don’t believe Britain is run for the benefit of those who work incredibly hard each day to keep the show on the road. In truth, too often they feel invisible in their own country.”

That doesn’t tell us what Starmer believes, but what “many people” believe. The “invisible in their own country” line is an authentic expression of an anti-politics sentiment that feels that the country has changed too fast, and it is consistent with Starmer’s attempts to recover ground with Leave voters by saying that he recognises the deeper issue of wanting to take back control that lay behind the Brexit vote. But it is not what Starmer believes – he voted Remain and tried to frustrate the referendum.

Later in his “This is what I believe” article, Starmer uses his pre-politics experience as a personal manifesto. “When I was in charge of thousands of civil servants at the Crown Prosecution Service,” he says, “people were sometimes unwilling to put forward good ideas because they were politically challenging, went against the grain, or had simply never been asked. I went around all the different regional offices and made a point of speaking with the staff at all levels to ask what was the biggest problem they faced, and whether they had a way of solving it. A lot of the best innovations came from staff who just got frustrated with a problem and had worked out a better way to do things.”

This is good management practice, but it is not a belief system. Starmer was, by all accounts, an effective director of public prosecutions. He worked hard and demanded high standards of his team. But he was no visionary. He showed no flair for delivering change in a large bureaucratic organisation.

The same message is sent by the putative appointment of Sue Gray, former head of propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office, as his chief of staff. A New Labour cabinet minister told me, when Gray’s appointment was first mooted, that Starmer didn’t need a civil servant as his chief of staff, because Starmer himself is essentially a civil servant – “What he needs is someone who understands politics.”

That may be true, although I have argued that Starmer does understand politics: he is ruthless when he needs to be, and he is good at playing dumb. It may be that the less he says about what he really thought of Corbyn, or indeed of Ed Miliband, the better; and that at this stage of the electoral cycle, platitudes about mission-driven government are all that is needed. Perhaps a competent public servant is all people want in a prime minister.

But there are dangers in leaving a vacuum at the heart of the next Labour government, which is that it might be filled in by the voters, with a little help from the Conservative campaign machine.

There are two issues in particular on which ambiguity is unsustainable. One is tax and public spending. It will always be true over the longer run that a Labour government will tax and spend more than a Tory one. Starmer and Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, have done a reasonable job of insisting that there will be no unfunded spending promises, but it doesn’t feel quite nailed down just yet.

The other issue is Europe, on which public opinion and the personal views of nearly all Labour MPs point only one way after the election – yet any hint before the election of a closer relationship with the EU will put off a significant segment of the electorate.

What Starmer says he believes about Europe makes no sense, and therefore allows his opponents to attribute to him a desire to reverse Brexit that will go down badly with precisely the voters who have come around to supporting Labour, and whose new loyalty Starmer needs to retain.