Every new ‘agenda-setting’ speech Keir Starmer makes it becomes less clear what Labour stands for

July 25, 2022 4:29 pm(Updated July 26, 2022 8:44 am)

Keir Starmer has been repeatedly criticised for offering only a critique not a positive alternative to the current Government. This morning, the Labour leader was hoping to change that in Liverpool, with a speech to set out his economic vision, “we need three things: growth, growth and growth”.

When Starmer was running for the Labour leadership in 2020, one of his campaign team confided in me that he didn’t really understand economics at all. Since then we have learned that Ed Miliband and Lord Falconer reportedly gave him lessons in “Economics 101”.

Judging by this speech they didn’t enjoy much success. Yes being in favour of growth is good, as is claiming that it must be “strong, secure and fair”. It is generally very bad for politicians to advocate recession and “weak, insecure and unfair” would not be a winning slogan. But what was missing was a clear dissection of why the economy is failing to deliver for most people, and an explanation of how Labour’s plans would resolve them. Instead there was a deluge of declaratory phrases that evaporate on contact with any further thought – for instance one of Labour’s five principles for growth was “we will be distinctively British”.

In the speech Starmer framed the next election as a choice “between Labour growth and Tory stagnation”, but the risk for the Labour leader is that by 2024 (the likely date of the next election) economic growth probably will have returned – unless we are about to enter an 18-month period of recession.

In February last year, Starmer made a speech modelling himself as a new Clement Attlee (the post-war Labour PM), again billed as setting out his economic agenda. He said the pandemic had ushered in “a new chapter for Britain”, in which “people are now looking for more from their Government – like they were after the Second World War.”

It is worth remembering that Attlee’s government nationalised rail, water, and energy (committing to doing so with a national debt twice as large as it is today) and delivered high levels of economic growth, while creating the NHS, building council housing and developing the welfare state.

But such a commitment to the Government acting on behalf of people has been junked – as shown by his neoliberal shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that Labour would not take rail, energy or water into public ownership.

Reeves said “within our fiscal rules, to be spending billions of pounds on nationalising things, that just doesn’t stack up against our fiscal rules”, which doesn’t seem to reflect her own stance which allows for borrowing for investment. Bringing assets into public ownership brings with it a revenue stream for the public sector, which is why the private sector wants to keep them in private ownership.

After a backlash from affiliated rail unions, the party issued a statement asserting “we know there is a positive role for rail in public ownership” – the sort of mealy-mouthed phrase that just annoys everyone. Rail infrastructure is already in public ownership, as are a couple of rail franchises (at least temporarily) after private companies failed.

When asked about public ownership by journalists following his speech, Starmer replied that he wanted a “partnership with business”. On rail public ownership specifically, Starmer said he was “pragmatic not ideological” and wanted to keep prices down – something privatisation has failed to do.

Starmer appeared vague when being pressed for detail, relying on soundbites not arguments. Every new agenda-setting speech Starmer makes ends up making it less clear what Labour stands for. It’s especially disappointing that the Labour leadership has turned away from public ownership on the day that the Trade Union Congress set out a detailed plan to cut energy bills through bringing energy into public ownership 

Earlier this year, Starmer had claimed the mantle of Harold Wilson, another former PM, in a speech that also promised a new economic age, this time in which the “white heat of technology” would drive growth.

There was no mention of this today: instead rather than Starmer’s previous allusions to Attlee and Wilson, he delivered the Tony Blair-esque line, “the approach to growth I have set out today will challenge my party’s instincts”, copying the New Labour playbook of picking a fight with your own party to demonstrate independence from any hint of the Party’s constitutional commitment to democratic socialism.

Instead of imitating previous Labour Prime Ministers, Starmer needs to set an economic agenda based on the economic circumstances currently facing the country – not those of 25, 50 or 75 years ago.

Without fleshing out his views, Starmer asserted his vision was a “clear contrast to the Thatcherite cosplay” between Sunak and Truss, with both Tory leadership contenders vowing to be more Thatcherite than the other.

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But when it comes to public ownership Starmer is embracing the post-Thatcher settlement of privatised utilities run for profit. Likewise he has slammed Government tax rises and has ditched the redistributive taxation policies of the 2019 manifesto, chiding his party today that it should “care as much about growth and productivity, as we have done in the past about redistribution and investment”.

It’s disappointing that redistribution and investment are to be confined to the past as both will be necessary to deliver economic growth that it is “strong, secure and fair”. But perhaps, like most of this speech, it was just a soundbite.

As Starmer evolves from Attlee to Blair via Wilson, it seems imitation is the sincerest form of vacuity about the current economic agenda Britain needs. There was nothing about tackling the cost of living crisis now, about controlling soaring energy bills, sorting the NHS staffing crisis or addressing low pay and poverty.

The one thing that is clear is that Labour’s strategy under Starmer is to bet the house on the Tories imploding and Labour winning by default. If you can’t be good, be lucky.

Andrew Fisher is a former executive director of policy for Labour