When Jeremy Corbyn resigned as Labour leader, six candidates stood to succeed him. A year ago this Sunday, the party chose the white guy. Not because he was white or a guy, but because Sir Keir Starmer was obviously the most electable.
Is that so obvious today? After 11 years of Tory rule, Labour is still behind in the polls. And Starmer’s personal ratings are on the slide. We’re all scratching our heads wondering what Labour is for exactly. Ominously, that’s a question we used to ask about the Liberal Democrats (before we stopped caring).
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So where does Sir Keir turn in his quest for relevance?
He could turn Left. This means promising to spend more than the Tories — a lot more. But there’s a problem with that. When you’ve got a government that’s already borrowing and printing money to the maximum extent it can get away with, outbidding it isn’t credible. It didn’t work for Labour in 2019 and it’s not going to work now.
What does Starmer do instead? Well, he could use values and not money to make his case. It’s an approach that worked for Joe Biden against Donald Trump and for Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen. But who and what would Starmer be defining himself against? The lazy equivalence between Brexit and the blowhard populism of Trump and Le Pen does not bear scrutiny — and especially not now that Brexit is done.
So, what can Labour do? The answer is to ruthlessly, relentlessly target the ruling party’s self-inflicted impediments. Every government has its blindspots. Over time, bad habits become ingrained and the same mistakes made over-and-over again because change is riskier than the status quo.
After 11 years in power, the Conservative government is riddled with political arthritis.
Labour’s mission, therefore, is not to overthrow the post-Brexit settlement, but to make it clear that the Tories lack the strength and agility to carry it forward. And instead of complaining about what the government can’t do because there’s not enough money, it must condemn what the Conservatives could and should do, but won’t.
Okay, that’s the theory, what about some specifics? What are the policies on which Labour can exploit the stubborn stupidities of the enemy.
Here are 10 to be getting on with:
1. Land for the people
How do you provide beautiful homes for Generation Rent at an affordable price? Easy: you stop paying top dollar for the land they’re built on. That means that when the undeveloped site gets planning permission, the uplift in value should be used for the common good not private gain.
Freeing the land is not Leftwing, it’s what Winston Churchill called for back in 1909. But after 11 years of trying to solve the housing crisis, the Tories still don’t get it. Instead, they’re wasting taxpayers money by subsidising a fundamentally broken system.
Starmer should go to war for aspiring homeowners and leave Boris to defend the landed interest.
2. Tax landlords
It’s not just new development that enriches lucky landowners — they also extract wealth from the existing stock of housing and commercial property. As we struggle to recover from the pandemic, we simply can’t afford to let this continue.
Amazingly, the Government would rather whack up taxes on job-creating companies than tax land values. This should be an open goal for Labour, but Starmer missed because though he attacked the planned hike in Corporation Tax he didn’t put forward a clear alternative.
3. Tax the money men
Governments around the world are busy printing money right now — through a process called quantitative easing or QE. Both directly and indirectly this generates fat profits for the financial sector.
Ministers and central bankers would rather that the public looked the other way while all of this was going on — but the Opposition should shine a spotlight on the whole murky business. An effective Shadow Chancellor would make the government squirm: demanding to know exactly how much money is going into whose pockets and insisting that these windfalls be properly taxed.
4. Crackdown on cronyism
A public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic would take years to agree let alone complete. So instead of boring-on about that, Labour should focus on cronyism instead. There’s no reason why the dodgiest procurement contracts of the crisis shouldn’t be investigated in the course of this parliament.
Furthermore, Labour should draw-up anti-profiteering legislation to enable the recovery of public funds from opportunistic and incompetent contractors. It could be introduced as as a backbench bill and the government dared to strike it down.
5. Abolish the House of Lords
A Labour war against cronyism could be fought on multiple fronts. The House of Lords, for instance, is crawling with well-paid lobbyists. Lords reform is supposedly an impossible conundrum, but only if you take the ermined buggers seriously. Obviously, the Tories do — they won’t even get rid of the remaining hereditary peers — but Labour doesn’t have to.
If Starmer wants to throw the Left of his party some red meat, then why not start with the red benches? Yes, the Westminster village would erupt with cries of constitutional vandalism — but in the constituencies that Labour needs to win back the message would be “Look, fewer politicians!”(800 fewer, in fact).
6. Abolish (some) universities
Abolishing a few universities would also go down well in the right places. A system of student finance that works at the top end of the higher education system is an expensive waste at the bottom. Reform is long overdue, but I don’t see the current government touching it — parties normally need a spell in opposition before undoing their own work. So, another opportunity for Starmer.
Instead of a cap on student numbers, he should announce a cap on the underwriting of student loans — and redirect the savings into state-of-the-art training centres aimed squarely at the needs of the non-graduate workforce. The Labour Party: the clue’s in the name.
7. Nationalise the trains, localise the buses
The Tories are pumping investment into infrastructure, but what they won’t do is change who owns and operates it.
While privatisation is a success in some industries, it’s been a failure for public transport. With the Covid crisis having forced an effective nationalisation of the train operating companies, this an ideal moment to reboot the entire system.
The same goes for the buses. Quite clearly the London model of public control works — with bus use going up while it has gone down everywhere else. Right now, Andy Burnham — the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester — is fighting to do the same.
This is municipal socialism as it should be — efficient, achievable and capable of making a positive difference to everyday life.
8. Share power around
The irony is that there wouldn’t be Mayor of Greater Manchester of it weren’t for the decentralising reforms of David Cameron and George Osborne. The whole ‘Northern Powerhouse’ push was one thing they got unambiguously right.
But, then, in a fit of absence of mind, the Tories gave up on decentralisation. It’s painfully clear that today’s levelling-up agenda is under central not local control. The Treasury has even gone so far as to establish its own colonial outpost in the North. What arrogance!
Still the Conservatives’ backward move is a chance for Labour to become the party of localism. If you want support for a bigger and more powerful state then share it around!
9. Reclaim the streets
Nothing feels closer to home then the safety of our streets.
However, with Priti Patel in the Home Office, can Labour compete on a ‘tough on crime’ agenda? Well, there may be one crimefighting approach where Tories fear to tread: CCTV.
As a former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer ought to know that what really deters crime is not the fear of punishment, but the certainty of getting caught. With the tech getting cheaper and powerful all the time, electronic surveillance holds out the prospect of a future in which nothing goes unseen on our streets.
If it were smart, the Labour Party would become the champion of comprehensive CCTV coverage. Libertarian Tories would cry ‘Big Brother!’, but Red Wall voters would rejoice.
10. Defend our borders
Border control might seem to be another Tory issue. But in respect to the Covid virus, this government left us wide open to attack. Our ports and airports should have been our first line of defence, but we were much quicker to shutdown our schools than to secure our borders.
For once, Captain Hindsight has an opportunity to address a key failure of governance with something approaching foresight. What is at stake is defending the effectiveness of our vaccination programme against new variants of the disease. The return to normality at home is too precious to sacrifice for the sake of a foreign holiday — or a supply of cheap foreign workers.
Again, Labour can lay a trap for the Tories here: take a tough line on keeping out Covid — and let Tory libertarians scream blue murder.
There’s no doubt whose side the Red Wall would take.
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