February 20, 2021   10 mins

There really is no way to explain the political meaning of Sir Keir Starmer’s big economic speech without using a lot of c-words. So if you’re a sensitive type you might want to stop reading, lest you be offended by triggering terms such as “consensus”, “competence”, “compassion”, “culture” and — extreme content warning — “centrism”. This is what politics is going to be all about over the next five years.

Starmer’s speech this week wasn’t ‘big’ or radical. But it was interesting. A quick and only slightly unkind summary would go as follows: a Labour government would use public money and state power to do stuff that makes things a bit better, unlike those wicked Conservatives who would shut down hospitals and starve the poor. Clement Attlee was a bit dull too but he won the 1945 election so ignore all the media chatter about me being a bit meh, OK?

“Show, don’t tell” is good advice for journalists and politicians and when a politician ignores it, it’s worth paying attention. Starmer used his speech to tell us that British politics is approaching a “fork in the road” where the Labour and Conservative approaches on economic policy and the role of the state diverge sharply.  He then showed that in fact, the opposite is very likely to be the case.

Starmer’s hope is to frame politics as a choice between his own entirely respectable social democrat agenda of state power working in partnership with responsible business on one side and on the other, a Hayekian state-shrinking conservatism that dreams of Austerity 2.0 and de minimis public services:

“The truth is, whoever their Prime Minister is, the Conservatives simply don’t believe that it’s the role of government to tackle inequality or insecurity. They believe a good government is one that gets out of the way, rather than builds the path to a more secure future.”

To be fair to Starmer, there are indeed some Conservatives who do believe this. But there aren’t very many of them, and they really aren’t calling the shots in the Conservative Party right now.

Boris Johnson may well have libertarian inclinations, but he’s been willing to override them in the face of the pandemic, not least because he — eventually — accepted that lockdowns are quite popular. And, in any case, Johnsonian philosophy, such as it is, has never extended to economics: the PM doesn’t have any particular view of economic policy except as an extension of his political agenda.

Hence the Tory mayor of London who tried to protect black cabs against Uber. The Tory MP who said “fuck business” over Brexit. The Tory leader who said he’d spend billions more on the NHS instead of cutting corporation tax. And hence the Tory PM who has not hesitated to oversee the biggest expansion of state spending and borrowing in peacetime in response to the pandemic, and who has no particular interest in doing much to unwind that expansion, since that would mean tax rises or spending cuts or both.

Nor does he face much pressure from others to do such things; quite the contrary. At the level of international economics, the consensus view of post-pandemic policy has shifted quite remarkably since the global financial crisis. Economists and market actors who used to demand budget-balancing fiscal discipline are now deeply relaxed about states borrowing to support demand and fund infrastructure. That’s in large part due to central banks, of which more later.

Domestically, Tory budget hawks are pretty rare birds these days. Yes, Rishi Sunak drops hints at wanting a slightly more restrained approach than the PM, but that’s basically the job of anyone overseeing the Treasury and in any case it’s all relative. Signalling that you’re more fiscally conservative than Boris Johnson is like saying you swear less than Gordon Ramsay. If you want an illustration of how the centre of fiscal gravity has shifted among Conservatives, consider the ongoing Cabinet row over Universal Credit: Tory doves want a permanent increase of £1,000 a year; hawks want short-term increases worth hundreds of pounds. Osborne-era cuts in welfare are off the Tory table.

Which brings us back to the political problem for Keir Starmer’s modest, sensible speech. The perfectly sensible economic approach he outlines will only offer a “fork in the road” contrast with the Tory stance if that Tory stance changes dramatically in the next couple of years. In effect, Starmer is betting on his opponents doing what he wants them to.

I suppose that’s not impossible. Perhaps Sunak will somehow replace Johnson and turn out to be a true neo-Thatcherite who subcontracts economic policy to the Institute of Economic Affairs. But that’s an extremely unlikely scenario, to put it politely; far more likely is that Johnsonian politics continues to trump economic conservatism and the Tories go on spending on stuff they think will let them hang on to enough of the voters they won from Labour in 2019.

Which brings us to the first of those c-words — consensus. And it twins with another: Clem. It makes good headline sense for Starmer to evoke Attlee, given he’s the man some in the media think we need, and a good foil to Johnson’s Churchillian fantasy. But the parallel doesn’t really hold.

Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 governments might have helped establish what eventually became a sort of post-war consensus on economics and the state, but the Attlee reforms began in contention, not consensus. His big domestic calls — the Beveridge welfare state and the NHS — were initially opposed by the Conservatives, who only regained power after they accepted those reforms. So, if Starmer is Attlee, as he claims, what are the transformative, mould-breaking changes he wants that his opponents reject?

Even allowing for Starmer’s prudent reluctance to reveal much of a policy agenda so early in the game, there is no reason to think that he is a man who will oversee and implement an era-defining transformation of state and the public realm. When you see children’s “Thank you NHS” posters in front windows, you realise we live in a word Attlee’s governments helped design. Starmer is a clever man with good policy advisers, but even his greatest admirers would struggle to suggest he has an agenda for changes that will still stand tall in British life in 70 years’ time.

A better post-war text for Starmer’s approach is in the continuity of economic policy that began under Atlee’s last chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell in 1950 and persisted under the Tories’ Rab Butler from 1951. The postwar consensus of “Butskellism” can be overstated, but for at least two decades after Attlee, there was little serious disagreement between Labour and Conservatives about how economic policy should work and the ends it should seek. Today, we live in another period of consensus, even though it is rarely acknowledged as such.

The unspoken truth is that Labour and the Conservatives today already largely agree about economics and — at least as important — how economic policy should be done. Since Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took power in 1997, UK economic policy has operated within rules they established. Politicians tax and spend as much as they think voters and the gilt markets will tolerate, under largely cosmetic fiscal “rules” conjured up and then broken according to the politics of the day.

Meanwhile, the Bank of England sets monetary policy and — sometimes — worries about inflation to provide real assurance to the markets. And in times of crisis, it is the Bank that provides the most important support for demand, even though stimulating demand is a deeply political business with the sort of distributional consequences that are more commonly made by elected leaders, not officials.

That policy framework, largely replicated in other advanced economies, has created the conditions that allow Boris Johnson to spend like a sailor in port, and all with the blessing of the IMF. Independent central banks have now spent more than a decade pumping new money into credit markets, pushing down borrowing costs and making it almost free for governments to borrow, borrow, borrow. To be clear, the Bank of England hasn’t deployed “extraordinary” monetary policy with the aim of supporting Government borrowing, but that policy has had that effect nontheless.

The economic case may be sound, but the political implications of quantitative easing are huge. Cheap money inflates asset prices, including housing, benefitting older property-owners and screwing asset-poor youngsters. It helps pump up equity prices — because money has to go somewhere — and arms private equity with barrels of “dry powder” to spend buying up companies and transforming the corporate landscape.

A Labour Party that wanted to offer a real economic alternative, a true fork in the road, would challenge that policy framework, look again at BoE independence and the role of QE. That’s what John McDonnell wanted, you might recall. But his successor as shadow chancellor, Annaliese Dodds, has made clear that while she’s aware of the side-effects of QE, Starmer’s Labour will defend the post-97 policy framework to the hilt: central bank independence will be the foundation of Starmer’s economics. As for fiscal policy, Labour would conjure up another set of rules “targeting a balanced budget over the cycle but still allowing for flexibility in times of crisis and for productivity-enhancing investment”. Which would sound familiar to a decade of Tory chancellors.

Dodds set that out in her Mais Lecture last month, a speech that got less attention than Starmer’s but which is essential to understanding the current Labour position. That position, made clear across the two texts, is that Labour wouldn’t do things differently but it would do them better. Industrial strategy. Regional policy. Supporting skills and investment.  Saying nice things about small business. Agreeing that inequality is bad and should be reduced. The Labour agenda boils down to promising much the same as the Conservatives with better implementation and better results.

Which brings us to competence, and compassion. Accepting an economic consensus cuts down Labour’s options for attacking the Conservatives. It is banal for an Opposition to accuse an incumbent government of not doing enough to fix the problems of the nation: that is dog-bites-man politics that sways no-one’s vote. So Labour can only offer greater competence and greater compassion.

The first is simple to describe and near-impossible to deliver. How do you show people you can govern well when you’re not in government? Blair and (almost) David Cameron managed to convince the electorate they could run the country well despite a total lack of experience, but in both cases they were helped by incumbents who were (harshly) seen to have overseen catastrophes of incompetence: Black Wednesday and the credit crunch.

And while it’s still very early in the political story of Covid-19, voters are so far showing few signs of penalising Boris Johnson for his errors over the pandemic. Current polls show the Tories edging ahead of Labour and Johnson’s approval ratings now higher than when he entered No 10 in 2019. Embracing lockdown caution and the stunning competence of the vaccine rollout mean it’s possible that the PM who oversaw more than 100,000 Covid deaths might not pay a major political price.

Of course, that could change. Most voters don’t currently see the pandemic as a political event and they’re not really thinking about an election that’s still nearly four years away. Perhaps the slew of inquiries that must follow the outbreak will reveal culpable failures by Johnson and his party. But betting the 2024 election on a public inquiry isn’t a coherent strategy for Labour. And remember those predictions about how the deadly mismanagement of the Iraq War in 2003 would doom Blair in 2005?

Starmer’s other route will be the familiar Labour promise of compassion: trust us to do things better than the Tories because we’re nicer and we care more about you and your family. Again, there are limits to how effective this will be against Johnson. First, it’s another dog-bites-man political cliché: every Labour election campaign in modern times has come down to promising to protect the NHS from wicked Tories. Even if voters hadn’t heard that line before, this time they may well be offered the chance to vote for wicked Tories who have showered the NHS in record-breaking sums of (borrowed) money. Compassion may still favour Labour, but it won’t be enough.

And so to culture, then. When there is no significant political division about economics, what’s left to fight about? Values, worldviews, social issues, and who understands and likes the country best. Both the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election proved that for some voters at least, culture and values trump economics. Some people voted Brexit aware that it might mean foregoing some national wealth; similar imperatives helped turn bits of the Red Wall blue for Boris.

Johnson’s Conservatives understand that, which is why they’ve largely ditched fiscal conservatism and decided to forget the history of Margaret Thatcher signing the Single European Act and promoting the Single Market. Instead of the “markets uber alles” approach that Starmer now alleges, Johnsonian Tories  make a hard-edged cultural appeal to people who used to vote Labour by instinct and tradition. Thatcher won over working-class Labour people by promising to make them richer. Johnson’s offer is less about wealth than freedom: a sovereign nation you can be proud of again. For some people, the nation’s precise GDP matters less than the flag that flies above it.

This is why it’s sensible for Starmer to try to talk up his economic differences with the Conservatives, because focusing on the truth — that those disagreements are fairly minor — inevitably shifts the conversation to cultural dividing lines. As leader, he’s been very adept at sidestepping Conservative elephant traps that would force him to take a position on “woke” issues such as trans rights and free speech, which are of only minor importance to most voters. But some in his party are quite keen to fight over such things and every time a Labour MP joins the debate about pulling down statues or decolonising the curriculum or using the right pronouns, a small cheer goes around Conservative HQ. Witness the Labour “backlash” when some second-tier advisers suggested that the Labour Party might want to show voters that it — gasp — actually likes Britain and understands why some voters like the Union flag and being British.

Politics-as-culture-war is a battle that many (though not all) Conservatives would relish far more than Starmer would. Tory strategists see the image of Woke Labour led by an Islington lawyer as the best way to stop those Red Wall folk taking back the voters they lent Johnson in 2019. If Starmer’s consensual approach to economics succeeds in neutralising the issue as an attack line for the next election, you can look forward to Tories deploying ever more culture-war wedge issues in the hope of forcing Starmer to choose between the values of his progressive colleagues and the worldview of voters who want politicians to talk about jobs and hospitals and schools, not undergraduate debating points about “social justice”.

Keir Starmer is currently experiencing the downswing of a political pendulum that’s been accelerated by social media and our ever-shorter attention spans. For as long as I’ve been writing about politics, the media-political village has had a tendency to divide politicians into triumphant victors and dismal failures, with no room for shades of grey in between. But in a discourse made jittery by Twitter-immediacy, the jumps from one extreme to the other quicker and more jarring.  A couple of weeks ago, my former colleague Stephen Bush wrote a smart and nuanced piece that included balanced reporting of some Labour discontent with Starmer; yet for all Stephen’s nuance and balance, within a few hours, the SW1A village had settled on a new consensus that Starmer is a duffer doomed to fail.

Before we reach that far-off next election, the Labour leader will see some highs and more lows too; I suspect he’s calm enough to treat those two imposters much the same. I also suspect that absent a huge change in the politics of Scotland, he’ll struggle mightily to secure a Labour majority at that election.

But ultimately, I’m less interested in the fate of Starmer – or Johnson – than in what their approaches to economics reveal about politics and policy today. The last few years have seen a lot of people talking about the death of our fifth c-word, centrism, cheering as consensual technocrats lose out to ideologues who supposedly have a better understanding of what The People want. But that narrative, like most, has been over-done. Between them, Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer are tacitly agreeing a modest, technocratic consensus over UK economic policy after the pandemic. What Works is quietly reasserting its dominance over the Will of the People.

At least on economics, they aren’t so much Churchill and Attlee as Butler and Gaitskell. Shall we call it Johnmerism or Starmsonism? Take your pick, but I’m happy to go with Centrism 2.0 — and a country tired of politics as demented soap opera will be too.

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation