It’s not been the easiest 18 months for Keir Starmer, the period in which he has been Labour Party leader. With the Coronavirus crisis dominating the political agenda, there have been few opportunities for him to talk about much else – or set out his stall politically.
So no doubt he will be excited for the (physical) Labour Party Conference over the weekend, in which he has apparently been advised to “reintroduce” himself to voters. Keen to maximise the next few days, yesterday he released a 12,000 word essay, titled The Road Ahead, which sets out his “post-pandemic vision” for the UK.
Although there was much fanfare in the lead up to its release, reviews of the document have been disappointing to say the least. Far from bolstering Labour in the polls, it will raise questions across the political spectrum about whether Conference will be any more interesting – as well as how much longer Starmer can go on for.
Starmer has previously said Labour has “a mountain to climb” to win the next election; he has regularly given signals that he knows what the party’s issues are, and is ready to turn its fortunes around.
But The Road Ahead reveals otherwise; it shows, conversely, a Labour Party that is stuck in the past, with passages about the 2008 financial crisis (“a smokescreen for rolling back the state”) and why Brexit is bad. Astonishingly, given Labour’s desire to win back the Red Wall, Starmer complains that the “Brexit gridlock put enormous stress on our country” (and whose fault was that exactly?).
The essay is overwhelmingly negative. Tens of pages spell out what’s wrong with Britain, as the Labour Party sees it, as well as the Conservative Party, which Starmer accuses of handing of “billions of pounds of taxpayer money to their mates”. One wonders if Kate Bingham, the UK’s vaccine saviour, falls under this description – for the crime of being married to Jesse Norman, a Tory MP.
Elsewhere Starmer accuses the Tories of plunging “headfirst into the murky depths of the so-called ‘culture wars”’. This has become something of a cliched accusation from the Labour Party; the idea that the Conservatives started this ideological battle (because it’s so fun having one’s free speech stifled…).
But it is also unlikely to enamour the electorate, especially at a time when Rosie Duffield, a Labour MP, has said she would not come to the Labour Party Conference due to online threats surrounding her “gender critical views”. This, in itself, is a very real example of a culture war.
It’s not all doom and gloom in The Road Ahead. Towards the end Starmer offers 10 principles for a Labour-run UK. The trouble, though, is that they feel rushed and rather vague, such as the pledge that the “economy should work for citizens and communities” and that the “government must play its role in restoring honesty, decency and transparency in public life.”
Furthermore, some parts of Starmer’s essay sound close to what the Conservatives are offering. Labour’s quest to “ensure good, secure jobs are spread across the country” is, after all, what the Government is aiming for with its plan to “level up” the country and move jobs to the North.
And this is a big issue for Labour; it is having to compete against a Conservative Party whose policies have been pretty generous when it comes to remedying economic inequalities. Labour has to prove, this weekend, that it can differentiate itself in a meaningful way.
Overall the document release reminds me of when Starmer dramatically took to the podium last October to call for a “circuit break” lockdown. His team had calculated that doing something would be better than nothing. But in both cases, the substance was missing. The Road Ahead, in fact, just reinforces Labour haven’t quite worked out what the electorate would like to hear.
Instead of bolstering Starmer’s appearance at conference, it will pile the pressure on him to announce detailed policies. Already there are signs of some interesting ideas; Labour has unveiled, for example, plans to force developers to sell homes to first-time buyers six months after they’ve been built. Can Starmer go much further than this? That is the question people will be asking this weekend. Or else, the road ahead looks misty indeed.