Starmer’s caution has been politically disastrous – can he change course?

This time last year, Keir Starmer was preparing to give his first conference speech as Labour leader to a near-empty room. Separated from the public due to social distancing measures and greeted with silence rather than applause, the image became a metaphor for Starmer’s early leadership: some scripted words were carefully uttered, but ultimately no one was listening.

This month will see Starmer get a second chance, but this time the stakes are higher. The pandemic has given Boris Johnson the chance to be regularly beamed into the public’s living rooms, while Starmer has been prevented from much in-person campaigning, making conference a rare opportunity for him to get his message across. What that message is will be a different matter entirely.

Almost 18 months on from his election as leader, the primary criticism of Starmer is that voters do not know what he stands for. Starmer is cripplingly cautious – a meticulous thinker who lacks ideas or the courage to put them forward. He is clearly conscious of this, as evidenced by his plan to publish a 14,000-word “mission statement” to party members.

For some time, Starmer’s focus has been on creating lines to attack the Tories (“Get a grip!” is a favourite) and highlighting Johnson’s incompetence. There is plenty to attack the Conservatives on – there always is – but a “competence war” won’t help Starmer. The strategy misjudges both Johnson’s weakness and Starmer’s task. Most voters know Johnson’s a chaotic shirker and they elected him anyway. It is not enough for the public to stop believing that the Tories can govern – they must believe the Labour party could do better.

Research consistently shows that simply listing problems feeds a sense of fatalism in the electorate. Labour has to carefully balance highlighting Britain’s ills with proposing solutions to them. To put it another way: it’s one thing to convince the public the Tories are wrecking the country, it’s another for them to believe this can ever change.

Starmer is said to be developing big themes ahead of conference but it is notable that the issues trailed so far – such as crime and antisocial behaviour – are straight from the Conservative playbook. It is fine to take on issues favoured by your opponents, but there is something to be said for changing the conversation entirely. This week, pledges made at TUC conference to increase the minimum wage to £10 and provide sick pay for all are positive moves in that direction.

Labour should be raising issues that the Tories are ignoring: from the housing crisis, to working conditions, to inadequate social security. Just weeks after the Labour conference ends, millions of people will be hit by the £20 cut to universal credit. Starmer’s speech is an opportune moment not only to drag the government over the coals, but to make the case for a welfare system that supports rather than punishes families.

Last week’s failure to offer an alternative to Johnson’s shoddy social care plans should not be repeated. There may be an economic case for not making exact tax commitments before a general election, but politically, it’s disastrous.

Offering no alternative sounds like you have nothing to offer, and creates an empty void for your opponents to fill. Labour instead should have set out preliminary funding plans in broad brushstrokes to set it apart. It made a start with asking that those with “the broadest shoulders” should take on more responsibility, but conference is an opportunity to define who it is for and who it is against: “The Tories want to tax workers, we’ll tax wealth.”

But it’s not enough for Labour to say how it would fund social care – it should set out what sort of system it would be. How will it improve services? How will it help older and disabled people who go without any care at all? The party of the NHS should naturally pitch to be the party of social care too. Social care that’s free at the point of need, paid for by progressive taxation; the plan would target the traditional Tory demographic of older voters and homeowners who have been largely failed by Johnson’s plans.

Reaching out to older voters does not need to come at the expense of the young. Reformed social care and lower energy bills for older voters could sit alongside well-paid jobs for young people and better housing, as part of a drive towards a green future with better paid jobs in the low-carbon care sector, and new and improved housing stock with low energy waste.

Starmer’s difficulties aren’t all of his own making. Many of the problems that plague Labour have been brewing for decades, and Jeremy Corbyn’s crushing 2019 defeat was reason enough to make the most radical cautious. But, sooner or later, the cautious QC is going to have to do something.

The conference podium is Starmer’s chance to offer the electorate his vision of a post-Covid Britain – one that finally puts more rights in workers’ hands, funds public services and offers a reformed safety net for when we’re sick or old.

Eleven years of Tory rule on top of the coronavirus crisis has exposed Britain’s long-time gaping inequalities, while millions more are being forced into precarious jobs, debt and hardship. It is, by any definition, a seismic challenge. It is also what the Labour party was created for. Starmer would do well to remember it.

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