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Keir Starmer’s squandered chance This crisis should be red meat for Labour

Another future is possible (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)


August 17, 2022   5 mins

It was supposed to be Keir Starmer’s big gambit: an opportunity to make the political weather, put forward an election-winning economic policy, and slap down “big beast” internal critics. Instead, his long-awaited plan for dealing with the cost-of-living crisis is unlikely to survive the month.

Starmer’s grand idea is to freeze the energy price cap at its current rate of £1,971, preventing further rises to an estimated £3,500 in October and over £4,200 in January. This will, he says, save households around £1,000. Now, when calculated on the back of a cigarette packet, this all seems to add up. The only problem is that households which use the most energy will be the biggest winners — and these tend to be richer households, with larger homes to heat.

The proposal, then, is classic Starmer: another sweeping gesture in a policy area that should be Labour’s for the taking. Consider the political context. The economy is flailing, the Conservative Party has moved on from an unedifying defenestration to an even more unedifying leadership election, and Corbyn and his outriders have largely been silenced. And yet, Labour’s lead in the polls has fallen from 11% in the week after Johnson’s resignation to around 5% since the start of August. On current boundaries, it leaves Labour 18 seats short of a majority.

The blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of Keir Starmer and his economic timidity. As has been frequently noted, the British public sits largely to the Left on economic affairs and to the Right on social affairs (or on the authoritarian side of the authoritarian-libertarian divide). Research by Paula Surridge suggests the average position of 2019 Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Brexit Party voters can all be found in a Left-authoritarian quadrant. Even more encouraging for proponents of Left-wing economics is YouGov’s finding that, among people who consider themselves Right-wing, 57% say the government should have a significant or dominant role in managing the economy, while 48% think the minimum wage is too low. Starmer should be pushing against an open door.

The Conservatives are clearly aware of this. It was, after all, George Osborne who introduced the “national living wage”, Theresa May who introduced the energy cap, and Boris Johnson who centred his premiership on levelling up. But we have seen no similar recognition from Starmer. Rather, despite standing on a largely continuity-Corbyn platform (in policy terms, at least) in the 2020 Labour leadership contest, he has tried to shift to the Right economically. “The role of government is to be a partner to private enterprise, not stifle it,” he wrote last year in a 14,000-word pamphlet which sounded more like a TaxPayers’ Alliance press release than Marx.

It also demonstrated that Starmer has learned the wrong lesson from Labour’s 2019 general election defeat. Corbyn’s personal unpopularity was an obvious cause of Labour’s drubbing, but his economic policies were popular — until people realised they were linked to him, or the Labour Party. (The same happened with Conservative policies under William Hague.) For all his flaws, Tony Blair was right to warn that progressivism was an electoral vote-loser; it’s that part of the Corbynite agenda Starmer needs to ditch, not the economics.

In this, Starmer shares the root of his faults with Rishi Sunak: both had been MPs for less than five years when they were put forward as party leaders; their promotions were rapid. And both are now floundering because they have no instinct for where their respective party bases sit.

But Starmer suffers, even more than Sunak, from a lack of political imagination. When the energy price cap was increased to £1,971, Starmer described the new level as “a very, very big problem”. And yet his new position is to keep the cap at this very level — by spending more than £30 billion. This is a politician who reacts to events, rather than shaping them; a politician who has no sense of what a better tomorrow looks like. By this point in the cycle, voters should be sick of hearing Labour’s next election slogan. Instead, Starmer’s only discernible pitch seems to be: “At least we’re not the Conservatives.”

Perhaps that will be enough to win in 2024. But perhaps it won’t. Liz Truss, the clear frontrunner in the Conservative leadership contest, has a three-point lead over Starmer — and that’s amid a toxic internal battle with Sunak. Placing Starmer against a Conservative leader without the personal baggage of Johnson and with a clear vision of what she believes in will only make his own ideological vacuity more apparent. Yes, Twitter might titter at Truss. But when voters see on the news that Starmer can’t even decide whether to let his frontbench attend a picket line, that hardly seems important.

So what should Starmer do? Well, the most obvious step would be to recognise that things in the UK are just a bit shit at the moment, and a lot of this is down to short-termism. Starmer’s original leadership campaign slogan, “Another future is possible”, is probably the right one. But coupled with this optimism is the need to be as ruthless as the Conservatives, who are happy to reward their voters (the wealthy, the elderly, homeowners) at the expense of other groups who are less likely to vote for them (students and welfare recipients).

Starmer should also follow the “housing theory of everything”, which argues that a lot of problems in the UK are at least partially driven by a lack of homes being built in areas where people want to live. In the UK, that’s often due to the greenbelt, especially around London. Happily for Labour, a lot of those areas are Conservative or Conservative-Liberal Democrat seats. The party should explain how they will fast-track more houses in these places (a good starting place would be within 800m of all commuter stations). These people were never going to return a Labour MP anyway, but the policy could be deployed to show Labour can take tough decisions. Similarly, rich pensioners (who will not vote Labour) get a lot of money from the state which they don’t need and which would be better spent elsewhere, either on poorer pensioners (who will vote Labour) on the NHS or on social care.

As for the cost-of-living crisis, if Starmer really wants to make energy more affordable, he needs to recognise that a price-cap freeze won’t help those who can’t afford to heat their homes now. Instead, he should take the £30 billion-odd this policy would cost and pump it into Universal Credit and council tax rebates for the working poor. For a long-term policy, Starmer should back large-scale, state-owned nuclear power and massive investment in battery technology, both tied to new apprenticeships and a green jobs revolution.

Finally, he shouldn’t be shy about what Labour councils are doing right. Under Corbyn, you couldn’t move without hearing about the Preston model, but since 2019 and the Conservative focus on levelling up, Labour seems to have completely vacated the pitch on local urban renewal. If Labour can’t do anything in opposition, it could at least tell people what they’re doing in local government.

Ultimately, however, a bold, economically Left-wing but socially-centrist policy platform is unlikely to emerge at the next election. As the saying goes, when someone shows you who they really are, believe them. And in the more than two years since he was elected leader, Starmer has shown very little sign of doing anything bold — let alone returning Labour to power.


David Jeffery is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.

DrDavidJeffery

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 year ago

I appreciate that the metropolitan left loathe the Conservative party and are thus desperate to have a Labour leader they can love like Tony Blair, but Starmer really isn’t ever going to be that guy – however much they click their sparkly red pumps together and repeat “There’s no place like Sedgefield”.
What Starmer and “Starmerism” – if that really is a thing – have still failed to answer is ‘What is the current Labour party for? Whose interests do they seek to serve and promote?’
It’s certainly not workers. Except maybe some of those in the public sector. Most of the working class, whose interests the party was founded to represent, have long been an embarrassment to the Labour leadership. Emily Thornberry’s Van & St George’s Flag tweet, and Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy, were just moments that publicly laid bare a view that has been prevalent within Labour HQ for years.
John McTernan, Blair’s advisor, put it most succinctly when he dismissed working class supporters as the “lumpen mass with their half-formed thoughts and fully-formed prejudices”, and urged the party to ignore them and focus instead on ethnic minority voters, who could be attracted to Labour by stoking their sense of grievance.
The shadow front bench of recent years, whether NuLabour centrists or unreconstructed Trots, seems to have an agenda completely at odds with the hopes, fears and aspirations of their former heartlands – yet still imagined those voters were theirs to command by right.
Nothing that Starmer has written, said or done is likely to win them back to the cause. Though plenty he has said and done will have persuaded former supporters that he is a duffer. A North London fauxialist who seems to have wafer thin policy positions backed up by no principles whatsoever – simply being marginally less awful than his predecessor isn’t enough.
Corbyn never found an anti-West, anti-British cause he wouldn’t support – we all know that. Motivated by adherence to long outdated and un-nuanced notions of Socialism, Corbyn famously never reads books, ever. His ideas were all ingested during his student days and his 20s, while playing Marxist in South America, and he has been regurgitating those ideas (mostly undigested) ever since.
However much Starmtroopers might want to believe in their hero, Starmer cannot plead innocence through ideology, indifference or even ignorance. He supported Corbyn wholeheartedly and stood by him in the hope of his own personal advancement. Starmer cannot even use the excuse of being a fool – he has many faults, but he is by no means stupid. He is, however, a coward.
Downhill SirKeir spent 4 years agitating to overturn Brexit, despite describing himself as a democrat and patriot, then imagined he need only to cynically drape himself in the flag because a focus group told him (much to his surprise) that most people don’t actually despise Britain, or wish to see the monarchy abolished. None of that is going to win back red wall voters nor appeal outside the base.
Starmer – the unfortunate love-child of Max Headroom and Gordon Brittas – is an uninspiring, charisma-free technocrat, with no instinct for leadership. The Tories will never need any campaign poster against him, other than showing the Leader and his gobby deputy kneeling to BLM.
The sole reason for Conservatives to kneel should be in thanks for only having had to face Miliband, then Corbyn and now Starmer, and praying their good fortune holds.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paddy Taylor
Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

So well put.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Exactly. Modern conservatism has been a deep disappointment. They have been lucky to have faced an even more incompetent stupid and unappealing opposition for years.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy Bray
Roger Sponge
Roger Sponge
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Spot on! I’d add that he thinks that transwomen are women.

Vici C
Vici C
1 year ago
Reply to  Roger Sponge

You know he doesn’t really. Just hasn’t the balls to call it out.

Nick Wade
Nick Wade
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

“ Starmer – the unfortunate love-child of Max Headroom and Gordon Brittas – is an uninspiring, charisma-free technocrat, with no instinct for leadership. “

Sums the man up superbly!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

And you missed the fact that Starmer was in charge of the CPS when it failed to prosecute the grooming gangs.

Ludwig van Earwig
Ludwig van Earwig
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

An admirably thorough spanking for Starmer and LINO. And this damning quote about UK LINO could so easily be about their counterparts in New Zealand, where I live:

“Blair’s advisor, put it most succinctly when he dismissed working class supporters as the “lumpen mass with their half-formed thoughts and fully-formed prejudices”, and urged the party to ignore them and focus instead on ethnic minority voters, who could be attracted to Labour by stoking their sense of grievance.”

Jacinda Muddleduck and her deputy Grant Robertson would never admit to holding such views of course, but their policies make clear their priorities.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ludwig van Earwig
Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 year ago

Ludwig,
Whilst I appreciate it is rather shallow, not to mention unkind, to dwell on the physical characteristics of one’s political opponents, I have to say that Jacinda A seems to have developed a look of pained sanctimony for the cameras that always puts me in mind of portraits of early Christian martyrs.
Rather uncharitably, the fact that the BBC and Guardian in this country were at such pains to portray her as the paragon of political sincerity and virtue, only made me want to see the veneer crack all the more.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paddy Taylor
Ludwig van Earwig
Ludwig van Earwig
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Not unkind at all – Ardern is very hammy. I voted for her in 2017, but can’t stand the sight or sound of her nowadays.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I agree they find the working class a “basket of deplorables” to quote a famous politician. Very much like the Democrats in the US they fail to engage the working class/blue collar. The genius of Cummings was that he understood Northern working class people- socially Conservative but economically Liberal. They like public spending and public services but detest sniping about the English being nasty and racist and don’t mind being patriotic.

Peter Shaw
Peter Shaw
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

You should be a writer on Unherd, Paddy.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

“The housing theory of everything” is actually “The mass immigration theory of everything”

Until Lab understand that, they should get comfy on the opposition benches.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

Younger people, who trend Labour, dont get that. If labour did represent workers it would get it, and lead opinion, but it doesnt.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago

This writer thinks that ‘Starmer’s original leadership campaign slogan, “Another future is possible”, is probably the right one.’
May I suggest that ‘Another future is possible!’, ‘Forward to the future!’, ‘Hello future, goodbye past!’ and similar fatuous, vacuous slogans have no effect whatever on how people vote and only serve to lower politicians’ esteem in the eyes of the electorate.

Last edited 1 year ago by Malcolm Knott
Vici C
Vici C
1 year ago

Well of course he is dead in the water. I cannot conceive of one labourish solution that could get us out of this crisis and get the economy going again. Seems like the only true opposition conservatives have is the BBC.

Rosemary Throssell
Rosemary Throssell
1 year ago

Ain’t this the truth.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago

About these “rich pensioners” who get a lot of money from the state which could be better spent elsewhere. Would that require a means test?

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

So what if it does ? Don’t most state benefits require a means test ? That is the way of allocating scarce resources to those most in need after all.
Either you have universal benefits and accept the waste this entails, or you find a way to distribute help to those who most need it. I favour option 2. That gives help where it is most needed and does not create perverse incentives where it is not.
And what is the tax system but a large system of means tests ? For instance, a single earner grossing over ÂŁ60K a year loses child benefit (and notoriously a couple with individual incomes of ÂŁ59K a year each do not). What is that but a means test ?

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

I don’t object to means testing but there often seems some reluctance to apply it. I was thinking particularly about the state pension rather than general benefits since the author referred to ‘rich pensioners’. I must admit that I bridled at this at first since I’m a pensioner, not at all rich but comfortably off. My first thought was, well haven’t I paid for that pension during my working life so it’s not as if I’m being given free money. I have earned it. But then I thought maybe I was wrong to think like that. So I’m not sure.
I sometimes wonder why they separate normal tax from National Insurance which is really just another tax.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Steve, yes you have paid *something* towards your state pension. However, I am extremely doubtful if you have paid the true (full) cost of it (details in my reply to Christine below) (and that is absolutely not the case for defined benefit government pensions – but that’s another topic). None of that is your fault – you have been led to believe that NI contributions are sufficient to fund state pensions by politicians for decades. But I don’t believe this is actually the case.

Kathleen Stern
Kathleen Stern
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Most pensioners have paid for them all their working life. You are advocating theft in order to advantage those who didn’t!

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

I think it might and there’s the rub.
The state pension is below the poverty line that is the shameful position.
A State pensioner, after 40 years national insurance contributions should not have to go cap in hand to claim .
If you didn’t work in the public sector or in a large corporation with separate pension schemes, that is all you have. Which is the same as anyone over pension age who hasn’t contributed at all. it’s unfair.
In fact claimants get more; once you are a claimant you have access to all benefits. no council tax etc.
The working population who contributed have completely been sold out and don’t get a fair rate for their contributions. I don’t think any other country ignores contributions as we do. Contribution based state pensions in Germany or America for example pay out about four times as much. I think only Albania has a lower state pension than us.
In the mid ‘80s workers without pension schemes in their workplace were encouraged to take out private pensions, they were expensive, private and not a good deal. Workers could also elect to pay more NIC, if they did it has made no difference to what they now receive. Maybe £5 a week. And all the fuss over the triple lock protection for the state pension is so misunderstood. Two and a half percent of £170 per week is the price of a cup of coffee in Starbucks. It is only offered on the state pension nothing else.
Nearly half the population of pensioners have been sold out, made to feel ashamed , treated badly. And they don’t want to be reminded of that by having to claim for more, they have worked hard and paid up in so as not to.
So thank you for raising that

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

I suspect that you are wrong and that the total paid out in the state pension actually exceeds the total contributions most people make to it – in other words it is actually quite good value for the cost involved. This can be verified by looking at the cost of topping up missing years or contributions. You can directly compare the benefit you can get by investing ÂŁ1000 in topping up missing state pension contributions against what you would get from investing the same amount in a personal pension. The state pension is far better value for money. Because the contributions are insufficient to cover the real costs.
The real problem is that the NI contributions are not sufficient to cover the benefits demanded/expected. The fact that people “have paid contributions all their lives” does not mean that those contributions are sufficient to cover the cost of the benefits they expect. They are not. Certainly not without cross-subsidy from others.
The original sin of the whole state pension mess is that it is unfunded – your contributions are not saved away in a fund where they can be invested and grow. Many countries do run such schemes and they are far better off for it. It is also far more honest.
As with the NHS, we are determined to stick with a badly sub-optimal model of funding because we – mistakenly – believe that “the system is fairer” this way. It isn’t. And we’ve levelled down to worse outcomes for everyone as a result.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Isn’t the shortfall in NI contributions made up from general taxation and if we’re mostly taxpayers doesn’t that mean we do actually pay for our state pension one way or another?
I realise this is probably not actually true because we paid NI and TAX “then” but get our pension “now”. All the same, it can’t be quite as unbalanced as you suggest.
For a pension age person there are several benefits which are already means tested. There are three which are not means tested – State Pension, Attendance allowance and NHS & transport allowance. So I guess they could means test the last two but I think means testing the state pension would be unfair.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Elliott
Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Steve – just to be clear, I’m absolutely not arguing got means testing the state pension. I do think however that as things lie life expectancty rise, the expectation that NI contributions must not correspondingly increase in unrealisitic. The alternative is the current Ponzi-like policy of importing more people to prop up an unsustainable, unfunded system. Sensible countries like Singapore have sorted this out in designing their systems.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

First of all Corbyn increased the Labour vote in 2017 and almost defeated Theresa May. Second, Corbyn was and always has been a Brexiteer, as were many of his colleagues on the left. His instinct was to respect the referendum and get the best deal. Sir Keir on the other hand forced him to renege on this and present the public with a second referendum in a bid to overthrow the first one in the 2019 manifesto. This led to the massive defeat of Labour in Northern cities. They had overwhelmingly voted for Brexit. “You ignored us so we ignored you,” as one Labour voter said the day after.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

“rich pensioners (who will not vote Labour)”. The retired elitist administrators of the state run enterprises are the only ones rich enough to afford to vote Labour whose interests they represent.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy Bray
Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
1 year ago

Starmer has two goals.
Topple Boris and Topple Brexit.
Everything else is superfluous to these two goals.
Wrong man doing the wrong job.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

I see very little chance of Labour ever winning an election again no matter how bad the Tories are. It will depend on how bad things get between now and 2024 I suppose.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Sir Pooter Starmer, the central casting version and archduke of Britain’s new lower middle class done good.

nick 0
nick 0
1 year ago

My lifelong community work has always led me into the lives of others, and for me, it’s about how people think in the privacy of their home and not what they say outside that
and that’s what the main problem is, as most conservatives are in fact UKIP/BNP in thought in the house and not at all conservative
labour are mainly conservative in thought, hence the leader struggles and will continue to do so and until the public understands how to read others on what and who they really are we will just go round and round in a loop as always year after year going nowhere.
Or like my well-educated daughter work for the government find out how useless they really are and then quit the country like so many from her uni

Aidan Trimble
Aidan Trimble
1 year ago
Reply to  nick 0

‘and that’s what the main problem is, as most conservatives are in fact UKIP/BNP in thought in the house and not at all conservative’. What a load of utter and complete offensive nonsense.