Starmer should be confident about entering No 10. It’s what he does next that will define him
When Keir Starmer assumed the Labour leadership two years ago, both the party’s left and right flanks feared that they were heading for a repeat of the Ed Miliband era. For the left, this meant a lack of a radical alternative to Tory rule; the right, meanwhile, was worried he would engage in a heretical repudiation of Blairite nostrums. Miliband’s tortured tenure as leader of the opposition reflected his own internal conflict between the radicalism of his Marxist father and his background as a New Labour adviser: his flirtation with an analysis of a broken economic system was not matched by the transformative policies required to fix it.
How appropriate, then, that it is Miliband himself – who concluded that his lack of boldness fatally undermined his own leadership – who has played a pivotal role in arming Starmer’s Labour with substantial policies. His influence could be seen in the party’s commitment to invest £28bn a year in a transition to a green economy, and to slash energy bills through the introduction of a windfall tax on fossil fuel profits. In Starmer’s conference speech, it manifested itself again: in the creation of a publicly run energy company that will own and operate renewable energy assets, and a sovereign wealth fund. Thanks to the determination of Labour’s transport secretary Louise Haigh, the party is officially committed to rail nationalisation, while her colleague Lisa Nandy has adopted a mantra of “council housing, council housing, council housing”.
Do not expect the Labour leader’s leftwing critics in the party – who have been ruthlessly marginalised under his leadership – to fall silent. After all, when he was seeking votes in the leadership race, Starmer made a series of pledges, such as putting water and energy in “public hands” and working “shoulder to shoulder with trade unions”. He then broke them when he was safely elected. If he’s broken promises before, what reason to believe he won’t do so again? A state energy company and a sovereign wealth fund could, if properly resourced, be genuinely transformative – or they could be tokenistic gimmicks. Remember Starmer’s office is populated by what could be termed “third-term Blairites”: that is, figures who hark back to the New Labour of 2005 onwards, which was obsessed with private sector involvement and competition in public services. They are not the 1997 cohort, which introduced the minimum wage and a windfall tax. They will seek to dilute any radical offer into timid banality.Starmer’s conference speech did, however, underline some basic truths. The party’s right has been devoid of ideas for years, and so any signature policies simply have to be plucked from an intellectual cupboard stocked by the left. When I spoke to Blairites lurking around the party’s conference hall, I asked why they weren’t sulking over a leadership speech pitched clearly to the left of pre-2015 Miliband. All said the same: an age of crisis – first the 2008 financial crash, then austerity, then Brexit, then Covid, then Liz Truss’s unhinged ideological crusade – has shifted the terrain of what is politically possible. It’s better late than never, I suppose, to wake up to what the Labour left and Conservative right recognised many years ago.
It is also true that the current economic calamity, authored by Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, has imposed a sense of purpose on Labour. Under Boris Johnson, the Tories posed as anti-establishment, toying with an economic interventionism that riled traditional rightwingers, and left Labour with little to say. But the Conservatives have now crashed the economy all in the service of shovelling more wealth into the bank accounts of the already excessively rich. No government in British democratic history has so brazenly presented itself as class warriors for the rich – and with such immediately catastrophic consequences. In those circumstances, a Labour party that didn’t position itself as the champion of working people would need to file for intellectual bankruptcy. And, in fairness, Starmer championed that class politics in his speech.A significant political divide has clearly opened up between Starmer’s Labour and Truss’s Tories. But that doesn’t mean that what Labour is offering is sufficient, given the scale of Britain’s many crises. New Labour assumed office, after all, at a time of economic growth and rising living standards, albeit powered by an unsustainable financial bubble. Britain is now in the midst of the most acute cost of living crisis in modern history, and an ever-escalating economic rout. Expectations raised by the eviction of the Tories from No 10 may be swiftly dashed without bold policies.