January 20, 2023 - 7:30am

One year before the last general election, Labour’s Left-wing Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell flew to Davos to deliver a warning to “the global elite” of “a social avalanche which will sweep them and their broken system away”. He pledged democratic control of the economy and a Robin Hood tax. “The Davos few have failed the many, and change is going to come,” McDonnell vowed.

The change didn’t come, and Labour is now under new management. With another general election looming next year, the current Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, has travelled to this year’s World Economic Forum with Labour leader Keir Starmer, but with a different message. “Britain is very much open for business,” Reeves declared.

Starmer and Reeves have spent their time in Davos reassuring, not threatening, the global elite. Starmer’s aspiration is not only to be taken seriously on the international stage but also to be seen as a prime minister in waiting. With Labour’s sky-high polling ratings, in evidence since the departure of Boris Johnson in September, this is now regarded as a likely prospect.

Starmer must be enjoying the attention. He told interviewer Emily Maitlis that he preferred Davos to Westminster, saying he found the latter too constrained and too tribal. Although just one other G7 leader is at the conference this year (Olaf Scholz of neighbouring Germany), Starmer has criticised Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for failing to show up, arguing that this absence was emblematic of a vacuum of British leadership on the world stage. 

Speaking on a panel on the energy crisis, Starmer offered few headline-grabbing pronouncements. He committed to a transition to renewables, but admitted that oil and gas would need to be part of the transition. He called for more onshore wind farms. He proposed a Clean Power Alliance to offset the influence of OPEC.

The main prize, as Starmer put it, was energy independence, underscored by Russia’s weaponisation of energy resources last year. The Labour leader said that he believed energy independence required an “active state”. Moderator Hadley Gamble picked up on this, asking if he meant nationalisation. “No, completely the opposite,” Starmer quickly responded. 

This was perhaps not the line of questioning Starmer had wanted. “What made you change your mind?” Gamble asked plaintively, noting that the politician had previously supported energy nationalisation. Too expensive, Starmer explained. The money needed to buy up shares in energy companies would be better spent preserving those companies and then subsidising households directly. But, he added, his party would support a GB Energy vehicle and public partnerships with the private sector.

Some might argue that Labour’s polling lead gives Starmer space to develop a bold policy offer to match the scale of the serious challenges facing Britain today. But the Leader of the Opposition and his advisers evidently take the view that caution is required. The Starmer gamble is that the country is not so hungry for radical change in policy as it is for a change in management. The avalanche that John McDonnell threatened would sweep aside the Davos elite has evidently melted away.

Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.