POLITICS
18/02/2021 19:43 GMT | Updated 19/02/2021 07:19 GMT

Keir Starmer Tells His Party ‘It’s The Economy, Stupid’. But Will The Voters Listen?

Covid fog has made it even tougher to climb Labour’s electoral mountain.

Keir Starmer’s Big Speech mentioned the word “business” 22 times, “future” 19 times and “security” or “secure” 17 times. Those are crude metrics, but they give a sense of his priorities as he tried to use the half-term lull in Covid news to talk about politics beyond the pandemic: Labour’s changed and the country needs to change too.

While Starmer’s main aim was to call for a fundamental reset of government direction, some of his critics wanted an equally fundamental reset of his own party leadership. They didn’t get that, and anyone who expects anything other than careful, methodical iteration from Starmer clearly hasn’t been paying attention to how he has operated over the past five years.

What he did give, however, were more clues to just how he plans to climb the enormous electoral mountain that Labour faces ahead of the 2024 election.

The sheer steepness of the ascent is not just the cumulative effect of the Miliband era (when Labour voters first took the UKIP gateway drug to the later Brexit Party, and the SNP first smashed Labour’s Scottish seats at Westminster) and the Corbyn era (dire personal ratings, a non-credible policy platform and failure to combat ‘Get Brexit Done’).

Progressing from base camp has been made all the harder by coronavirus itself, with Boris Johnson and his ministers dominating the airwaves with new announcements and a public clearly focused on just getting through the latest lockdowns and willing things to get better. Starmer rightly picked up on Johnson’s claim that “we truly did everything we could” to protect life in the pandemic (an albatross that will hang round his neck come that public inquiry), but voters still cut the government some slack.

Tony Blair, who knows a thing or two about repositioning an Opposition, put it neatly last week when he told me: “Of course they want to hold the government to account, but they’ve got to do that in a way that doesn’t look churlish or mean spirited because most people in the country know whatever government’s in power, this is a nightmare to deal with and is extremely tough.”

PA
Labour leader Keir Starmer delivers a virtual speech on Britain's economic future in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic at Labour headquarters in central London.

Still, the “constructive opposition” Starmer promised when he took over as leader has of late shifted to give as much emphasis on the opposing as the constructing. And his latest speech was all about providing an alternative vision to Boris Johnson’s, while trying to build the argument that a decade of Tory cuts and policy failure had left the UK fatally exposed.

Some of his internal critics may have been cheered to hear Starmer clearly place some of the blame for the huge health and economic damage of Covid on Tory “ideology” and short-termism. The message was plain: yes, I’ll be a more competent PM than Johnson, but I’ll also change the country with a stronger state.

But those repeated references to “business” were a rebuke not just to the Conservatives’ allergy to German-style state-business partnerships, but also to some in his own party. “If we’re honest, for too long Labour has failed to realise that the only way to deliver social justice and equality is through a strong partnership with business,” he said, a hint of a Blair-like barb at Corbyn/McDonnell era. Business is “not something just to be tolerated or taxed”, he added.

And in many ways, this speech was as much a repair job on Labour’s economic credibility as it was a call for a reset of the UK economy. Starmer knows that his personal ratings are the best of any Labour leader since Blair, but he also knows that the other key prerequisite of winning power is to win back the public’s trust when it comes to handling their money.

The main new policy in the speech, a British Recovery Bond, appears to have singularly underwhelmed his critics, as proof of yet another dull, uninspiring bit of managerialism. Yet in many ways the detail of the policy (what will its interest rate be? what exactly would it be spent on?) didn’t matter as much as the unifying message it was meant to send to the public: I’m offering a safe return for those who have piled up money in the pandemic, while using that money for long-term investment that will help the poorest.

It was no coincidence either that Starmer talked about the policy giving “security for savers”. Just as he wants to reassure the public that he’s strong on national security (on crime, terrorrism, defence) in a way Corbyn never was, he also wants to ram home economic insecurity as the Tories’ big weakness. A recovery bond may not set pulses racing, but it was another building block for that wider argument. And it was an answer to the question: what would you do right now if you were in power?

There are still obvious problems for Starmer on the economy. Just imagine if Rishi Sunak (pushed by his boss) makes a habit of inviting in the TUC to help draft policies like furlough in future? In ruling out tax rises now, in line with sensible economists like the IFS, Labour are trying to woo voters. But some of those same voters may be later bemused if a “wealth tax” is proposed in an election and weaponised by the Tories. The party has lots of fine words for the self-employed, a key voter group, but so far few policies to match.

Similarly, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds’s recent Mais Lecture shows Labour is now more radical in some ways than McDonnell in saying when the public finances should be rebalanced, but the party still struggles against Margaret Thatcher’s framing of national economies as if they were household budgets.

It would also have helped this speech if it hadn’t had some of the overselling hype beforehand. There was one claim that it was “six months in the making” (which would be five months longer than most conference speeches). There was talk of a rash of new policies, when in fact there were two (the recovery bond and a start-up fund for 100,000 new businesses).

Starmer’s own reference to a Beveridge Report-style “call to arms” exposed the fact that he simply hasn’t yet got such a sweeping set of proposals and certainly not in time for the March Budget that he talked about. But if he now follows up with his own updated Five Giants (including climate change, social care, childcare and other 21st century concerns all highlighted by the pandemic) in coming months, then at least he can claim he made a start today.

Starmer realises that many of the public right now are focused more when they can next see their extended family than when they can next see an early draft of Labour’s manifesto for 2024. The public are also much more interested in a party leader’s judgement and values than specific retail policy lists. Yet just as the average eight-week expedition to Everest takes years to plan, a successful three-week election campaign needs years of groundwork beforehand. Starmer has only just really begun.