by Tobias Phibbs
Thursday, 18
February 2021
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14:13

Keir Starmer’s ‘significant intervention’ was anything but

Labour will need more than a few retail policies to remain relevant
by Tobias Phibbs
Out of ideas already? Credit: Getty

It is almost impossible to overstate public disinterest in the machinations of the opposition party outside of elections. Around 600 people were watching the livestream when Keir Starmer’s latest ‘significant intervention’ began. These set-pieces are more about throwing red meat to the commentariat than addressing the public. Most people, thank God, really, truly don’t know or care whether Starmer has a Union Jack behind him when he talks — protagonists on both sides of that tired old debate only signal their own entropy. Electorally, the content of today’s speech barely matters either.

But it does give a sense of what might be to come. So, what did those few who were watching learn? Not a great deal. Some speeches set out a vision, some set out policy. Some do both, some do neither. Like Starmer’s Desert Island Discs — with Three Lions for the patriots, Stormzy for the kids — it all feels a little too manicured. The same furrowed brow and unhappy tone as his past two predecessors. The same language — the “moral crusade” against “injustices and inequalities” — and the same references (has any Labour leader not called for a new Beveridge Report?).

This is understandable. Starmer’s first role as leader was to restore credibility. But less than a year on from the leadership election, the ground has been taken from beneath his feet. The realignment in British policy that was a decade or more in the making has accelerated, and the new era is upon us. As the Left understands better than centrists, the Right now recognise the benefits of the state’s role in the economy and, fresh from the success of their vaccination efforts, have a taste for industrial policy. This has caught Labour in a bind: does it double down on talk of “not spend[ing] money we can’t afford”, or seize the moment and outflank the Conservatives in ambition?

We were promised the latter and got the former. The speech was peppered with retail offers, most of which were extensions of existing Conservative measures: an extra £1bn for the government’s Start Up Loans Company, keeping the Universal Credit uplift, the VAT cut, and the business rates holiday. This caution feels anachronistic when borrowing has risen by £212.7bn in a year. As IPPR showed, to meet the scale of stimulus in the US, Britain would have to more than quadruple their existing plans.

Though there was talk of a more through-going role for the state in the economy, this too was Labour catching up with a new consensus. And there was nothing to indicate any serious thinking about what this meant, or any break with New Labour — which combined neoliberalism with redistributionism in a fusion that kept inequalities at bay while selling off our national assets and accelerating Britain’s long-term decline.

As Aris Roussinos argued, “competition for the strategic resources of the new global economy will surely shape the world for the rest of our lifetimes”. China had a head start and nowhere in the world matches their Made in 2025 programme for ambition. Japan, India and South Korea are getting serious. Biden looks to build on Trump’s legacy in developing industrial policy to shore up critical supply chains, and even the EU are talking about strategic autonomy and building an alternative to Huawei. The Conservatives meanwhile are building on the vaccine success as a “blueprint for an industrial strategy.”

Where is Labour in all of this? As we enter a new era in which the state plays a more thoroughgoing role in the economy, it will need to come up with more than a few retail policies to remain relevant. A bit of this and a bit of that won’t cut it.

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Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
1 year ago

Labour is a wholly controlled branch of the Trade Union movement. That in itself controls the Civil Service and the NHS. The flyweight nobodies in the Party may be dismissed along with the sleazy solicitor, but the sinister anti-capitalist thugs who pull their strings should not be ignored.
After decades of trying to destroyed the country their time has come. Step forward the real enemy of the State. Watch Labour become the mouthpiece of these creatures and if we don’t stay one step ahead we will be lost forever. A tiny spineless spot on the map.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Gerry Fruin

Yep. Well said.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

‘Around 600 people were watching the livestream when Keir Starmer’s latest ‘significant intervention’ began.’
As many as that?! Quite a big audience given the star of the show.
‘Where is Labour in all of this?’
Who cares?

Last edited 1 year ago by Fraser Bailey
Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I have said before and will say again that Labour is barely fighting in the front line and Starmer is just a diversion. Labour is fighting in the councils and schools and has a very long-term plan because it knows it can’t win in the short term.
Labour supports the environmental lobby. In Wales, numerous companies wanting to settle in the principality have been effectively ignored by the Labour Assembly. New industry in the UK will be difficult. Meanwhile, as you know, China is taking over,
Labour is very active in the BAME movement and this is more of a youth thing. You could google, “The new Trans mayor of Bangor”. The new mayor is 23 and has obviously been elected by a council. I have family in Bangor and LlanfairPG and they think it’s a bit of a laugh but you have to remember that the mayor represents the city and if, say, a Japanese company wanted to set up in business it would demand respect (according to their beliefs).
As above, normally about 30% turn out for council elections. Any organiser of people can win these individual battles and set up Labour councils everywhere. Then they only have to refuse to do what the Tory government says.
Not to mention reducing the voting age to 16 and why not 14?

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris Wheatley
Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

And as with my birth town (Hull) they can go bust. Eventually (unfortunately a long way in the future) people do realise how badly the council is performing.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 year ago

Being lectured about inequality by a Knight of the realm with a CPS pension (presumably) of around £150K plus a Parliamentary Salary of a similar sum Circa £150K = £300K a year plus exes.
Rings a bit hollow -but fits the Labour Model. Rich Londoners claiming to represent their sad victim peasant voters. .

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

The civil service pension scheme is based on the number of years worked. He wasn’t at the CPS long enough to get anywhere near a half final salary pension if, indeed, he was eligible for that legacy scheme, which is unlikely.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

I will make a constructive suggestion for a change. I would say if Labour wants to remain relevant, they need to make a compelling offer for the challenges of tomorrow. Park all the cultural rubbish, don’t try and continually balance left factions with little sops, tell your deluded members their values based sensitivities can get stuffed.

Instead, make a policy framework to meet head-on what will be the biggest single challenge for every nation across the globe over the next couple of decades. This is the inevitability of automation eating ever larger numbers of jobs at an ever faster pace in every single domain across the globe, both blue and white collar. There is only one realistic answer to buy time as societies adjust to a workless world: move upstream, further up the value chains, and that means the uncomfortable need to learn things people have never attempted before. The reason I say this is, the inevitable instinct on the left will be UBI blah blah blah. If the left fall for that, they will get toasted if they ever promise it and then try and implement it in power.

This is what Labour can concentrate on: offer every citizen the lifelong ability to re-train into viable professions, preferably STEM oriented, as often as needed, the costs of re-training and support for families affected borne by the state. It would show Labour are serious about engaging with the 21st century instead of constantly harking back to the past. Attempt at policy level to get everyone everywhere, regardless of age, sex, or creed, to embrace the mindset of continual re-training and re-education, with an emphasis towards STEM. Even remotely realistic? Of course not. Not easy, not nice, and mental illness inducing high pressure. Worth attempting? It’s the only thing that has hope of offering any mitigation.

Last edited 1 year ago by Prashant Kotak
Mark H
Mark H
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Sadly I don’t think STEM-for-all is viable, because it requires the combination of two kinds of ability – managing a large body of knowledge, and practical problem-solving skills.
At a former workplace there were interns whose great passion in life was to work in this particular niche of electronic engineering. Both EE graduates, one could not design a logic circuit, while the other was soon expanding his interest to the manufacturing side of the business.
That said, there are many people in unfashionable parts of the UK who do have those abilities, and it’s a shame that they are not sought out and trained up.
[edit – I felt very sad for the colleagues I’ve had who lacked that problem-solving instinct; though some have had a happy ending in the more clerical world of COBOL or whatever retail banks use these days]

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark H
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark H

Mark, I hear you. Many people have told me my belief that most people can be taught most things is unrealistic nonsense. I nevertheless persist in believing that.
My observation is the big variation between people is the speed with which they comprehend something and can apply it – which in effect is a strong indicator of the wide spread in abilities you see in individuals. The point you make about marshalling large amounts of information goes precisely here: given time, most people can understand far more than they think they are capable of. They don’t because they are slow off the bat, and they don’t have a strong enough innate interest in abstractions to get past the inertia. There are others who can’t do it because they are stuck in loops in their heads: circumstances, backgrounds, events, history etc, and although all of that can be got past, it requires a lot of effort to unpeel all that unless you pay someone to help. To illustrate my point, the person who can understand the tunnelling effect in semiconductors today is no different from the person who was stacking hay in a two acre farm all their lives a couple of millennia ago. I have come across teens (in India) who were literally shovelling goatshit from one end of a village to the other, but half an hour of chat made clear they would be capable of anything any college graduate could do if they had been through the same education paths. This is in effect people who need to be ‘directed’ – as in, given the option they would wile away the years stuck in a groove of habits doing nothing.
The thing which changes this, is that most people when young enough to be coercible, are forced into school and college by their parents or govt for eight hours a day for a decade and a half minimum, post which in adulthood they revert back to operating under the tyranny of habits – the human comfort zone. The much rarer type is the ‘self-starter’, people who are so obsessively absorbed in a particular set of things that they gravitate towards expertise (and beyond, into innovation) much faster than everyone else.
I believe it is here we can find the missing piece into teaching things to people who don’t ‘self-start’. The culprit for my money is the industrialisation of education – something which has happened for very good reasons but is now ripe for revolution. Imagine you could teach each individual child or adult one-on-one – bespoke teaching on a per personality basis which explicitly plugs the comprehension gaps an individual teacher can see in their individual tutee. Well, you get much, much better outcomes. I’m not saying you will make someone interested in STEM, merely that you can teach it – although you might even awaken interests that weren’t there before comprehension came. The private education industry, which goes varying degrees down this path, proves the point. The reason it doesn’t happen for the bulk of people is because bespoke is impractical and expensive, and most individual teachers have neither the expertise nor motivation to get into the heads of a large number of tutees to see where the blocks are.
And my point is, today instead of teachers we have technology, which I’m firmly convinced can ramp up the level and complexity to which people teach themselves. I believe the algorithms will soon enough get into the heads of people (who allow them to), better than any teachers, and improve all aspects – memory, comprehension, even originality. These things are like muscles and can be improved.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

You seem to be making the same mistake that Maggie did – not everyone is capable of moving up the value chain. You also forget that there is only so much room or need for these highly trained people. We already have “certification / degree qualified mania”. I’m just waiting for the first degree course in toilet cleaning.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

Well, then that entails accepting that over the next two or three decades, ever larger numbers of people will form a global underclass of people who can do nothing that machines can’t do faster and cheaper and better. I’m not sure I won’t be one of those, are you sure you too won’t be one of those? As to the argument that not everyone is capable of re-training to something further up the chain, well the same argument would apply to the entire set of children and teens. And this is my point: you wouldn’t give your children the option to not go to school for eight hours every day, and instead play computer games at home all day, so why are you giving large swathes of our fellow citizens this free pass? You know your children couldn’t compete in the world of employment unless they pick up the necessary skills, so why should it be any different for you or any other adult whose entire profession becomes redundant? Just because you are middle aged?

Andy White
Andy White
1 year ago

KS seems to be lacking whatever basic political antennae you need to just do his job adequately.

Now he’s finally come out with a general direction of travel it’s reheated New Labour, which is bad enough, but what’s worse is he doesn’t sound like he understands it or genuinely believes in it like Blair, Brown and co did. He compares himself with Attlee and Wilson but is plainly terrified of having anyone in his shadow cabinet who might disagree with him. Unlike them. And for all his ‘fork in the road’ there is nothing distinctive about the course he is setting, which allows the Tories regular opportunities to show that they are ahead of the game (the latest eg being NHS reform).

Sorry Kier lovers but your man has turned out to be an Ian Duncan Smith, a decent fellow no doubt but a clueless dud as a leader. And there’s only so long any party will put up with that.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 year ago

labour is pointless atm

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

A truly radical Labour Party, that really represented working class people, would be calling for the abolition of Universal Credit and its replacement with benefits for only the seriously disabled and the temporarily unemployed; the latter being based on contributions. For everyone else, there should be a job with a living wage, lifetime education to enable upskilling and social mobility, and affordable, decent and secure housing to either buy or rent at a fair rent.
Handouts subsidise poor employers and landlords and encourage a culture of dependence with parents who do not take responsibility for their own children. Responsible working people; the sort who used to vote Labour, don’t want handouts and they don’t want to fund them for anyone else.
Labour also needs to completely ditch identity politics and tone down its ‘green’ obsession. Working class people are not interested in those things. Most want the lockdowns to end, their children to be back in school with no nonsense testing, and for them to be back at work, or to be properly recognised and paid for what they have done throughout.

Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson
1 year ago

“It is almost impossible to overstate public disinterest in the machinations of the opposition party outside of elections.”
That’s not true. The public’s uninterest, however, is a different matter

Epicurus Araraxia
Epicurus Araraxia
1 year ago

The Labour Party is now utterly irrelevant. Their only real policy is to support Israel. Wholly, and without question. Anyone who supports the Palestinians isn’t welcome in New(ish) Labour. In the rush to distance himself from even the appearance of anti-Semitism he has abandoned all of the Socialist principles that made Labour so relevant in the 1940s and never again since.
It’s time to purge the United Kingdom of both the Whig/Tory Party and the Labour Party and start over from scratch. The career politicians have ruined the oldest Parliamentary democracy and they must now be made to eat their own dogfood at their local Jobcentre Plus. If it’s still open, that is.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
1 year ago

It is almost impossible to overstate public disinterest in the machinations of the opposition party…
This should read “public lack of interest”, meaning, the public don’t want to know, they are uninterested.
“Disinterest” means objectivity, impartiality, ability to stand back and take a neutral position.
Thus it is possible to be hugely interested in an issue while at the same time being disinterested.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
1 year ago

You mean ‘lack of interest’, not ‘disinterest’, which is something else entirely.