Barring another bi-annual bout of Tory bloodletting, Starmer will address his fellow Labour members on Tuesday as the favourite to be our next Prime Minister. His poll lead looks increasingly unassailable as the SNP’s hold over Scotland wanes.
His confidence in entering government is matched by that in his grip over his party. Out are the Corbynistas; in are the Starmtroopers. Tony Blair and his ism have been rehabilitated: no longer a curse to be uttered, but a mentor to be consulted and a model to be emulated. The same big businesses Corbyn wished to nationalise are now queuing up for selfies with Rachel Reeves.
Yet if Starmer indeed becomes the first Labour leader whose name doesn’t rhyme with Bony Tlair to win a majority in 50 years, he will do so not because of a personal magnetism similar to Sedgefield’s favourite son, but because of Conservative incompetence.
As our Deputy Editor has highlighted, Starmer did not expect to be heading for power so soon. Labour’s revival was supposed to take two terms. After the vaccine rollout and Hartlepool, he was written off, as Boris Johnson looked set to squat over politics for a decade or more. Then came Owen Paterson, Sue Gray, Chris Pincher – and Liz Truss. Labour’s lead correlates directly to our implosion. Voters do not want Labour in. They want us out.
Starmer knows this. A question overhangs this conference: how radical can Labour be without spooking the voters? Some might see a 15-point lead as a licence for boldness. Which voter, exhausted by Tory psychodrama, would really return to Rishi Sunak just to avoid renationalising the water companies? Yet Labour remain cautious.
Starmer is best understood as a man of small ale left-wing opinions who desperately wants to be Prime Minister. Daniel Hannan points out that in his leadership campaign Starmer stood to the left of any Labour leader – bar his predecessor – since Michael Foot. He called the 2017 manifesto Labour’s “foundational document” and promised everything from higher taxes, to renationalising the railways, to an end to NHS outsourcing, tuition fees, and “illegal wars”.
For all his supposed principles, no u-turn on the path to power has been too great for the ex-republican turned knight of the realm. He called Corbyn his “friend” and kicked him out. He junked his campaign manifesto, lest it provide unfavourable headlines. His mind changes so frequently on what makes a woman that his wife should be worried. He boasted of taking on Rupert Murdoch and now speaks proudly of writing for The Sun. Winston has learnt to love Big Brother.
There is a line of thinking that suggests that all this shapeshifting is merely tactical: that the pull of Starmer’s instincts, his Deputy Leader, his backbenches, and his members would mean his government would be much more radical than his triangulation suggests. I am sceptical.
After Blair’s second landslide in 2001, an MP asked him if New Labour could now be junked, so the party could start doing what it really believed in. “It’s worse than you think,” he replied. “I really do believe it”. Can you imagine Starmer saying the same of Starmerism – if such a thing exists beyond dropping one’s principles at the slightest inconvenience?
Take the economic situation Starmer might inherit. Blair was gifted the economic equivalent of a “golden hello” courtesy of Ken Clarke. He stuck to Tory spending plans for his first two years and presided over a prolonged boom. Starmer would get low growth and little room for manoeuvre on spending.
Rachel Reeves seems serious about fiscal discipline and keeping the markets sweet. The former Bank of England economist has already scrapped her ‘Securonomics’ – a £28 billion annual bung for a ‘Green Prosperity Plan’ (like a tuppenny Joe Biden) – and wants to strengthen the OBR’s oversight. She has no ambitions to be Labour’s Kwasi Kwarteng.
Absent a radical economic agenda, how will the left be kept onside? Another Blairite echo. For scrapping the Assisted Places Scheme, read VAT on private schools. Add another cynical Equalities Act, more constitutional tinkering, and vague pledges for public sector reform, and Starmerism looks like little more than a belated sequel to the last Labour government.
Suggestions that a Starmer government would be Corbynism in a velvet glove seems even less likely when one considers his likely appointments. A Number 10 which has Sue Gray as its Chief of Staff and Ollie Robbins as Cabinet Secretary – of Brexit undelivery fame, and apparently Labour’s top choice for the role – will not shake up Whitehall. One cannot also see John Healey scrapping Trident, or Bridget Phillipson turning Eton into social housing.
Which is a shame.
Not on Trident or Eton – although I’m pro both, since our nuclear deterrent is pointless and expensive, and cos those Windsor wastrels once hammered my school Rugger team 87-7 – but because Britain needs a radical, transformative Labour government – or at least one willing to take the tough decisions we have ducked. Like it or not, we need another Clement Attlee, not another heir to Blair.
Pax Evelyn Waugh, if Labour ensures Britain becomes an evermore unconservative country, it is only because of our failure to turn the clock back a single second.
If Starmer reverses the Rwanda policy and shadows the Customs Union, blame the failure of successive Conservative leaders to control illegal (and legal) migration and properly bed in Brexit. Tory MPs complain about w*kery in government departments; they failed to repeal the Equalities Act. If they moan about high taxes or sluggish growth, it is because they abandoned public service reform, consider spending cuts unconscionable, and killed off planning reform.
In the absence of our long-awaited Meiji Restoration, a Labour government would only worsen those tendencies that Conservatives currently bemoan from the comfort of the GB News studio whilst doing nothing about. But that is not to say all that Starmer could do would be unwelcome.
Reeves and Wes Streeting have already made positive noises about housebuilding and NHS reform – two issues on which Labour have more freedom for manoeuvre than the Conservatives. Similarly, a party not dependent on pensioners could finally axe the Triple Lock and raise the retirement age. Starmer also lacks Rishi Sunak’s instinctive resistance to industrial strategy. He could invest in reversing our decayed state capacity and in ensuring our future energy independence.
But all that seems a pipe dream. Not only because Labour’s own focus groups are telling it that voters successively disappointed by Vote Leave, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson are weary of grand promises of change.
But because a man for whom a piece of legislation exists solely to exempt his pension pot from usual limits – The Pensions Increase (Pension Scheme for Keir Starmer QC) Regulations 2013, if you’re interested – is at heart no budding Bolshevik. Starmer is doing very well out of late Britain, thank you very much. The Blob shall triumph; nothing will change.
Which provides an opportunity for Sunak. Last week he portrayed Starmer as the latest instalment of a 30-year-old status quo of economic stagnation and wishful thinking. If he is willing to get tough – find Starmer’s Willie Horton, bust his OODA loop, and exploit his obvious timidity – a path to victory might still exist. Stranger things, and all that.
After all, if the Conservative Party can’t beat this bunch of pious public sector pension chasers and milquetoast Marxists, then what’s the bloody point of it?