Let us at least relieve Keir Starmer of one burden. It will be said – is being said – that his address to the Labour conference in Liverpool tomorrow must be the “speech of a lifetime.” But that is little more than cliché; a lazy trope of the party political calendar.
True, what Starmer says should be uplifting, coherent, selectively witty and palpably loaded with an impatience to govern. But he could deliver a combination of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the Gettysburg Address and JFK’s inaugural and his speech would still be rewarded with a few 30-second clips on news bulletins and a spot of analysis on Newsnight. Alas for the Leader of the Opposition, the reality of getting from where he is now to Number 10 is going to be a lot tougher than nailing his applause lines.
The non sequitur is the principal negotiable currency of much political debate. Liz Truss lacks any sort of meaningful mandate, has helped to steer the pound towards an all-time low against the dollar, and, if the opinion polls are any guide, has been denied the political honeymoon that even the most uninspiring new prime minister usually enjoys. So Labour is surely bound to win the next election. Right?
By no means. Funnily enough, one hears this faulty logic more often on the Tory side, especially in the wake of Kwasi Kwarteng’s visit on Friday to the political equivalent of Las Vegas. As one newly former cabinet minister puts it: “I watched Kwasi saying all these things – and found myself starting to scroll through my phone for the numbers of head-hunters, on the pretty safe assumption that I’ll lose my seat next time. It is utter madness. We may as well lay on coaches for Labour to Downing Street.”
Even those who admire Truss’s dynamism do not see it being put to good use. “There’s a big difference between Tory radicalism and betting the farm on an ideological whim,” says one Red Wall Tory MP who is seriously concerned that the PM has already destroyed the electoral coalition of 2019 by so explicitly dumping the principle of redistribution; by lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses while proposing to cut universal credit: and by scorning “hand-outs”. The same MP continues: “Don’t they realise what it looks like – that rich folk need carrots, and the poor need sticks?”
From a few Tories, one even hears that feeble lament of the politically exhausted: “Maybe it’s time for a spell in opposition.” (If, of course, a year from now, the Truss-Kwarteng plan is delivering economic growth and renewed electoral confidence, the same people will be saying that they trusted the PM and chancellor all along. That’s politics for you.)
In private, most senior Labour figures are more circumspect about their party’s chances. They worry that Starmer has never really had a chance to introduce himself with appropriate fanfare to the public: he was elected leader during lockdown, and spent his first year constrained by the broad spirit of bipartisanship required by the pandemic.
He has watched Boris Johnson being hailed a hero in Ukraine – stymied again by the fact that a responsible opposition leader has no real public role in a just war, beyond pro forma statements of support. Nor was Johnson’s fall the work of Keir the dragon slayer: when the moment came, it was Conservative ministers and the media who wielded the sword.
Even Starmer’s most loyal lieutenants are anxious that he has not read the memo about campaigning in poetry. In the words of one shadow cabinet member: “He is getting better and better at seeing the big picture. His command of his team is much stronger than Truss’s. But – well, let’s just say that he doesn’t have the knack of making ideas soar.”
This is painfully true. In an interview with the Observer yesterday, Starmer called for fossil fuel corporations to pay more of their windfall profits to meet the costs of the energy price freeze – a legitimate and popular idea. But here is how he justified it: “We’ve tried it out with numerous focus groups, polling. We’ve tested it and tested it and the vast majority of people can’t understand why you wouldn’t do that.”
No prospective PM should ever speak like this in public. It is not the language of a man who is straining to take command of the ship of state, to stride into Downing Street and immediately start writing “Action This Day” on the briefs in his first red box. It is the language of the Monty Python accountant, Mr Anchovy, who claims that he wants to be a lion tamer – but only “via easy stages”, such as banking and insurance.
Last but not least, there is specific concern among Starmer loyalists that this conference will be (in the words of one adviser) “worthy but dull” – especially in its preoccupation with proportional representation, which Starmer opposes, but party activists and an increasing number of unions think is a terrific idea.
The political calculation is simple. However intrinsically powerful is the case for electoral reform at Westminster – and that case is scarcely a slam dunk – it is, to say the least, low on the list of public priorities in autumn 2022. A party that believes it is heading for victory in the next general election does not fret theatrically about the rules which govern such contests. And the Tories are already preparing to warn (again) that Labour would have to cobble together a “coalition of chaos” with the SNP and the Lib Dems to stand a chance of forming an administration: arguing at their national gathering about PR oxygenates the claim that Starmer is already at work on an electoral pact, knowing that voting reform is one of the prices he would have to pay for the support of the smaller parties.
Let us be fair to the Labour leader. The Conservative Party has transformed itself from an ethical disaster zone into an ideological cargo cult. It has replaced a prime minister who wanted to have his cake and eat it with a successor who wants to have her cake and inflate it with helium – on the basis that “growth” is all that matters in life.
She and her colleagues speak in a strange private language that seems to be a hybrid of retro-Thatcherism and the infamous ravings of the Britannia Unchained (2012) collection of essays (to which she and her new chancellor contributed). When you’re worried about feeding and clothing your children this winter, or the prospect of your in-work benefits being cut, or your inability to get an appointment with your GP, it is scant comfort to hear another Old Etonian tell you that he is “unchaining” and “unleashing” everything in sight.
Bizarrely, the Truss gang behave like entryists, who have at last, after 12 years of frustration, been given the chance to remake the nation in a way they find pleasing. Their real opponents are not Starmer and his front bench, but the ghosts of Toryism past.
They are outright rebels against the premise – common coin since the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 – that the politics of the free market has to be leavened with a sense of fairness. John Major, influenced by David Willetts, called it “civic conservatism”. William Hague changed the epithet to “compassionate”. Iain Duncan Smith spoke of social justice as a Conservative idea. Michael Howard described a Toryism that was “broad and generous”. David Cameron had the “Big Society”. Theresa May promised to fight “burning injustices”. For Johnson, the aim was “levelling up”.
To which Truss’s answer is: sod that. In 20 days, she has dumped 30 years of Conservative thinking. None of the slogans listed above, you may argue, were worth a row of beans when it came to practical policy. But they reflected, at the very least, an awareness of the faultline in contemporary Toryism: “cruel but competent”, in Maurice Saatchi’s famous phrase, was no longer enough.
The new PM has turned her back emphatically upon all this and declared, quite openly, that her only priority is growth. Fairness and decency are for wusses. Let the unleashing commence.
So, to return to Starmer: it would be a waste of weirdness not to lay into Truss and Kwarteng for what they are doing, or to mock the sheer cheek of a prime minister who has been in the Cabinet for the past eight years posturing suddenly as an insurgent. Let us not deny the Labour leader the low-hanging fruit of the gags that he will surely make at the government’s expense tomorrow.
It is imperative, though, that he grasps how small a part of his task this is. Mocking the PM and chancellor is easy: they supply most of the punchlines themselves. The hard bit is to persuade the public to vote Labour instead. The space between the electorate losing faith in a governing party and switching in sufficient numbers to the opposition is much greater than most politicians ever truly appreciate.
So, what should Starmer offer? Policy detail is important but, again, it is not the heart of the matter. The much greater – and different – question is what Labour in the 2020s is for: what does its version of progressive politics amount to that is not just a shopping list of nice things and sunny propositions?
First, and most obviously, it must exude competence, and not only of the economic variety. For Labour, this has all too often been the stumbling block to the achievement of office, and Starmer is well aware that, in this respect, the party is still suffering the effects of “long Corbyn”. On the upside, he has in Rachel Reeves a seriously impressive shadow chancellor who incarnates the fiscal responsibility that the glassy eyed Kwarteng has chucked over his shoulder like a bad habit.
More to the point: Labour has the opportunity to frame what Britons are experiencing as a social emergency. The advantage that the Conservatives had in the Eighties was that, broadly speaking, everything was economics. The grand mission was to contain inflation, tame union power, and, where possible, roll back the frontiers of the state. Crucially, this mission meshed with the retail, doorstep politics of council house sales and the popular capitalism of mass share ownership.
In 2022, voters are once again beset by inflation and the prospect of increased mortgage premiums as interest rates rise. The difference is that this experience connects powerfully with a burgeoning fear that our public services simply do not work any more.
Is it not extraordinary that an incoming health secretary should consider it worth announcing that no patient should have to wait more than two weeks for a GP appointment? Not, please note, a guarantee. The fact that Thérèse Coffey, who is also deputy prime minister, thought this was a pre-conference goodie worth offering to the voters tells you a great deal about the new government’s detachment from social reality.
In that detachment lies a huge opportunity for Labour: to weld its claim to basic economic competence to a fundamental commitment to decency and fairness. Again, Starmer is greatly assisted in this respect by the sheer urgency conveyed by his shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting.
Second: if it is to win, Labour has to own the future. This is the unarguable lesson of 1945, 1966, and 1997. Clement Attlee understood that postwar Britain required wholesale social reconstruction. Well before he became prime minister, Harold Wilson spoke of the “white heat of technology”. Tony Blair grasped instinctively that New Labour had to stand not only for internal party transformation but respond to the social and political challenges of the post-Cold War landscape.
Starmer is a lawyer rather than a technologist; but that should not prevent him from insisting that his party cease completely the relitigation of old ideological arguments and instead face forward without flinching. The agenda is utterly daunting: climate change; the digital revolution; the inequities of globalisation; resilience against future pandemics; longevity and social care; the fast-mutating nature of work.
Yet it is towards such challenges that Labour should now gallop, bearing in mind the dictum of the great cyberpunk novelist, William Gibson that “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The job of progressive governments all over the world in the 2020s and beyond is to get on with that task of fair distribution. In which context, please note that Liz Truss has yet to appoint a science minister, a post which has been vacant since George Freeman resigned on 7 July. Of her many blind spots, this might be the most ridiculous.
Third: Labour must be the party of patriotism. Not the pinched, closed-minded nationalism of the Conservative European Research Group or whatever Ukip is called this week, but a generous pride in Britain’s strength, values and traditions of fairness.
I am told that Starmer has the beginnings of a rapport with the new King, who certainly admires David Lammy, the talented shadow foreign secretary. The Labour leader’s Commons tribute to the Queen on 9 September was rightly hailed as one of his finest moments, and it was a gamble worth taking to begin the party’s conference yesterday with the singing of the national anthem.
In this respect, he can seek inspiration from Harold Wilson, a Labour prime minister who grasped what Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes could never see: that there is no incompatibility between being a monarchist and being of the Left.
So warm were relations between Wilson and Her Late Majesty that he was sometimes granted two audiences a week. When he stepped down in 1976, she and Prince Philip attended a dinner in his honour at Downing Street – an accolade that had previously been granted only to Churchill in 1955. On that occasion, Wilson said that the monarchy was “more firmly based on popular support and affection than at any time in the century.”
For Starmer’s Labour, patriotism ought to be at the heart of everything it now does. It should go without saying that the party must match Truss’s pledge to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP – an undertaking which, according to Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, means that military expenditure will double from its current level to £100 billion in 2030.
Starmer must also make good on his pledge to visit Kyiv as soon as possible. All Labour leaders swear fealty to Nye Bevan and the NHS. Some forget the importance of Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary from 1945 to 1951, and one of the driving forces behind the creation of Nato. Starmer, still repairing the damage done by Corbyn – who thought that the appropriate response to the Salisbury poisoning was to send chemical samples to Putin for testing – cannot afford to make that mistake.
But Labour patriotism should not be confined to monarchism and a strong position on defence. As the Conservative Party turns itself into the political wing of the Laffer Curve, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Starmer to present his movement as the home of cohesive nationhood rather than of inherited ideology.
One of the best ideas that David Cameron had in opposition was to make climate change a pillar of national security and to discuss it alongside intelligence and cyberwarfare in the National Security Council. Nothing came of the notion. But Starmer would do well to make it his own.
It should be a matter of national pride and national self-preservation that the next government takes the climate emergency as seriously as it takes the defence of the realm. As the Times revealed last week, it is not yet certain that Truss will even attend Cop27 in Egypt. The fact that this summit is not already etched into the PM’s diary for November in indelible ink should signal to Starmer that he has another opportunity to show that he is serious: in this case about the most serious issue of all.
It is hard to be both reassuring and exciting. This is what the Labour leader has to do if he is to stand a chance of becoming prime minister. That said, the manic energy of the Truss administration ought to be less difficult for Starmer to trump than the slippery charisma of Johnson at his peak.
The path to power is finally visible. But the greatest enemy facing the Labour leader now is time: he has so little of it. His real problem is not the speech he has to make tomorrow. It is that – from now on, in this era of hyper-volatility – every tomorrow might prove to be his day of reckoning.