If The Road Ahead reveals anything, it is quite how hemmed in Starmer is by Boris Johnson, Brexit and the continued shadow of Jeremy Corbyn. The pamphlet reads far more like a Labour conference speech than a thinktank report, right down to the dewy-eyed references to 1945, the swipes at horrid Tories and the vague appeals to community and family. At times, one can almost feel the moments where the speaker expects to rock back on his heels, waiting for the applause to subside.
But there is a major problem: Boris Johnson would claim to share virtually every one of its ambitions and values, as would pretty much every Tory or Labour leader since Thatcher. The triangulation, which demands better jobs while attacking “red tape”, has been a staple of the centre ground for 30 years. His goals, like Tony Blair’s, Gordon Brown’s or David Cameron’s, are to “make work pay”, “rethink and improve public services” and “put power and control in the hands of people”. The question is how.
This is where the shadow of Corbyn comes in. For better or worse, the Corbyn leadership defined itself via large, eye-catching policy proposals: abolish tuition fees, create a national investment bank, nationalise broadband. It may be that, in 2019, the electorate simply didn’t buy it. But this leaves Starmer in the tricky position of seeking to distance himself from policy radicalism in general, while simultaneously promising a completely different future for society.
It may be instructive to compare Starmer’s vague moderation with the unexpected radicalism of his American counterpart. To the great surprise of much of the left, Joe Biden has so far passed a $2trn stimulus bill, tabled a $1trillion infrastructure bill (with provisions to rebuild the care sector smuggled in), and appointed a 32-year-old antitrust radical as chair of the Federal Trade Commission. Starmer, meanwhile, is still promising to “repair the public finances”.
Like Corbyn and remain before him, Starmer would clearly like to shift arguments away from culture and towards economics. Yet he isn’t able to name the event that so elevated culture above economics in the first place: Brexit. Starmer’s team may rightly argue that he faces some daunting electoral constraints, but The Road Ahead confirms how much work – and thinking – still remains to be done.
The two words Keir Starmer wants to be identified with are “security” and “opportunity”. Those are good themes for Labour and available terrain on which to battle Boris Johnson, a lord of chaos and cronyism. Security and opportunity also hint at recognition of something many voters didn’t like about Labour under Jeremy Corbyn – the suspicion that radical leftism is soft on national defence and despises enterprise. So two cleverly chosen words at the heart of Starmer’s pamphlet stake out a viable position. The problem is in the other 13,998, which suffocate decent ideas with platitude and entomb them in boilerplate.
The argument could have been made briskly. It is that the pandemic shows an appetite for social solidarity that the Tories are ideologically and administratively incapable of satisfying. It posits that the next election will be akin to 1945, when Attlee’s call to win the peace beat Churchill’s record as a war leader. Starmer then urges Labour to be less nostalgic, more future-oriented. All plausible; and unoriginal. It didn’t need padding out with banal declarations about the merit in good things that no one is arguing against. If the reason for extrapolating a point across a vast pamphlet is to appear heavyweight, this one achieves the opposite. If it is followed up with clever campaigning politics of the show-don’t-tell variety, it will serve a purpose. The strength of a position is defined by what is launched from it. That is hard to judge when Starmer is standing still.
It’s often said in politics that when you’re explaining, you’re losing. With this in mind, I wonder what we might be able to infer about a Labour leader who’s just published a 14,000-word essay to reassure the nation that he does indeed stand for something.
The Road Ahead represents yet another attempt in recent months by Keir Starmer to relaunch and define his vision for leadership, party and country. Political relaunches are a tricky business; they betray a lack of confidence, a tacit admission of failure. And they tend only to work if a leader is able to convey the sense that they are now truly free to be themselves. Starmer, however, seems to have searched his soul and merely found another focus group.
Who is this bleating about “hardworking families” (as if the nation is chock full of gainfully employed toddlers, doing their bit to get on in life) even for? Not the voters, who will quite rightly take one look at this and think: “I ain’t reading all that.” And not his party membership, who will be disenfranchised in future leadership elections should Starmer and his team get their way. No, this pamphlet aspires to be one-half of a ventriloquist’s act: the other is a political editor cooing to the public that Labour are no longer a bunch of polarising wrong ’uns.
The problem is that, as much as they insist otherwise, people actually like being polarised. From Scottish independence to Brexit, we live in an age where the electorate expects to be presented with big, divisive and difficult choices. What defines today’s politics is picking a side, energising your base and fighting tooth and nail for it. The unity Keir Starmer offers is of snoozing us into a politically induced coma.
Some of Starmer’s instincts in The Road Ahead are right: people will vote for a party that offers them “security” and “opportunity”. Our food, housing, energy needs, health and working lives are as insecure as they’ve been in decades.
Unfortunately the Labour leader seems more intent on soothing the insecurities (and maximising the opportunities) of corporate investors than voters. When it comes to concrete policy ideas, his pamphlet is just a wordy relaunch of Blair and Brown’s business-courting “prawn cocktail offensive”, with a dollop of Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” and David Cameron’s “big society” thrown in for good measure.
A majority of voters want to see the basics of our daily lives – energy, water, health and care, mass transport – put back into public hands. Running for Labour leadership, Starmer promised to deliver just that. After all, it’s hard to feel secure when our essential needs are delivered by firms who cut corners as they extract profits, leaving us with unreliable and costly public services, and businesses that cut and run if they don’t get taxpayer bailouts when the going gets tough.
This kind of behaviour is hardly the “contribution” and “hard work” that Starmer tells us should be rewarded. Yet on almost every page he finds a way of telling us that the role of government is to be a “partner to private enterprise, not to stifle it”. Indeed, Starmer is so busy cheerleading for the private sector’s “innovative” approach that he forgets to mention the £37bn we’ve just spent on a privatised test-and-trace system that delivered next to nothing. I don’t know about you, but I’m suddenly feeling a lot more insecure.