OPINION
19/02/2021 11:46 GMT | Updated 19/02/2021 13:11 GMT

Keir Starmer Must Dive Headlong Into Britain’s Challenges, Not Simply Dip A Toe

Starmer’s speech had something for all Labour members to agree with. But it wasn't the earth-shattering intervention we need, write Ian Lavery MP, Jon Trickett MP and former MP Laura Smith.

For the last two years, we have consistently pointed out the need for a rupture in the existing political, economic and social arrangements in Britain. The system simply is not working for the majority, and Labour needs to be clear that we are determined to bring about root and branch change. 

The strategy we have adopted under Starmer’s leadership so far has simply not worked. “Constructive opposition” in a national crisis may play well with focus groups, but it is clear that seeking to gain narrow party advantage is totally inappropriate when people are dying and the hospitals are at breaking point. 

But in the real world it has embedded a Tory narrative that they’ve done as well as could be expected. This is clearly untrue. Outside of Westminster, hundreds of thousands of families have lost loved ones and millions more are in financial peril due to Tory incompetence and neoliberal ideology. Yet still they cling to a stubborn lead in the polls. 

While there was much in Keir Starmer’s speech on Thursday that members across the Labour party could find agreement with, it certainly didn’t feel like something which lived up to the hype. Opposing the cut to Universal Credit, refusing to back an increase in council tax and an end to the public sector pay freeze have widespread support, but are not earth-shattering pronouncements. This was an opportunity to dive headlong into the sea of challenges we face – but it felt like we merely dipped a toe in.

Our country is at serious risk of calamitous decline, and we must show how to break through to a new dawn.

Where Brexit catalysed changes in voting patterns, occurring over decades, Covid is hastening the demise of the high street, laying bare injustices in the workforce and showing the frailties of a public service network that has been wilfully neglected. This is to say nothing of the crises of our time like climate change, demographic ageing, or automation. 

Problems of this magnitude can not be met with timidity. They need a bold confident Labour Party showing another way. Although we have great faith in the British people’s abilities, the truth is our country is at serious risk of calamitous decline, and we must show how to break through to a new dawn. 

Invoking the spirit of the post-war government and using Marmot as a rallying call seems appropriate; the millions of people who have suffered ill health, financial distress and loneliness must be given the promise of a better future. But this has to go beyond rhetoric. In the same way as Clement Attlee’s Labour offered the opportunity for Britain to “win the peace”, the Labour of now must offer a vision of “winning the health”.

We welcome the Labour plan to issue bonds to boost savings and fuel the post-Covid recovery, which was an innovative proposal in Starmer’s speech. But it falls short of the Marshall Plan-style scale of spending which is required to deliver the stated aim of stopping the neglect of British towns and villages in held back areas. 

Billionaires have raked in profits driven by the disaster that has befallen us all. A Labour Party comfortable in its own skin would have no issue calling this out.

In outlining the new contract with the British people we must be both ambitious for our country and concrete in the steps we will take. That 70% of children in poverty are in working families shows the current settlement is bust. 

As we outline a new relationship with business, workers must be at the forefront of our minds. Of course Labour should not be anti-business, but neither should it be subservient to it. The pandemic has shown the best and worst elements of British business and we should be confident in saying those who have exploited the Covid crisis for a competitive edge should play no part in setting the priorities of our country. We should also be confident in saying that the public institutions that have kept our country afloat in the last year belong in public ownership. 

Over the course of the pandemic as working people have seen their finances decimated, UK billionaires have raked in profits driven by the disaster that has befallen us all. A Labour Party comfortable in its own skin would have no issue calling this out and demanding a windfall tax on the profits of disaster. This could be used to fuel the renaissance that towns in all of our constituencies desperately need. 

If Labour is to win again, it must remember its roots and be comfortable in articulating the anguish of communities that turned away from it. Starmer’s speech showed an acknowledgement that the previous strategy wasn’t working. We urge the leadership to look at the monolithic challenges we face, reject the triangulation of the past, and outline a path to a country that truly is the best place in which to grow up and grow old.

Ian Lavery MP is the Labour MP for Wansbeck

Jon Trickett MP is the Labour MP for Hemsworth

Laura Smith is a Labour councillor and former MP for Crewe and Nantwich