Labour will need more than a few retail policies to remain relevant
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.