OPINION
26/08/2020 12:16 BST | Updated 27/08/2020 09:27 BST

Stop Saying Keir Starmer Isn’t Revolutionary. Restoring Trust Is The Most Radical Idea In Politics

With faith in government collapsing, it’s time we took Labour seriously, writes Nazir Afzal

Keir Starmer was my boss for five years as Director of Public Prosecutions and during that time we never spoke once about politics. Even now, I still don’t think of him as a politician despite the fact he’s leader of the opposition. 

In many ways you could argue he’s an odd choice as a political leader because he doesn’t really meet the modern job description. He’s never going to naturally take to riding a zipwire or working a crowd at Glastonbury, and is more interested in getting things done than the pantomime of Westminster. Neither does he hail from a populist bravura or firebrand political tradition. 

In short, he’s not a professional politician – and this is why he’s quickly identified what’s wrong with our democracy. 

Politics has been haemorrhaging trust for a long time, and our political class has never been more despised. As we’ve seen with the exams fiasco, every week is a new nadir.  

Until we restore public trust, our politics will continue to limp along without legitimacy – and government will repeatedly fail to deliver.

In a Trumpian post-truth, post-shame era where politicians will do everything for power at the expense of legitimacy, this is not surprising. The contract of accountability has gone. Politicians never say sorry, just change the subject.  And they don’t resign as a matter of honour when they fail because there is no honour in politics anymore.  

Politics has become deceit on such a grand scale that lying in public life is so normalised we scarcely notice it anymore. While Covid-19 times are unlike any other, the familiarity of the lies aren’t. 

Care homes, transparent death statistics, PPE procurement and the test and trace system shows there is one area where we are indeed “world beating” – our litany of lies.  

Until we restore public trust, our politics will continue to limp along without legitimacy – and government will repeatedly fail to deliver. 

This giant sized trust gap is what Starmer now must fill but it should also inform a wider vision of renewal. When the Labour MP, Clive Lewis, recently asked, “What is Keirism?” it was a nod towards the fact Starmer has yet to set out what a government under him would look like.  

He has to do this and if changing how we do politics is to define his mission, then why not extend this to other big policy areas? 

It may not excite the base or have the faithful in raptures at party rallies, but the painfully long, slow and difficult job of rebuilding trust in our politics is the catalyst to transform public life.

We have one of the most centralised governments in the world and, as the contact tracing fiasco has shown, pulling big levers in Whitehall is not the answer to tackling complex problems.

We need to disperse power and trust local communities more. Localism should be the big idea that Labour grabs and runs with. While the government pushes planning reforms that sideline communities, Labour should be seeking to empower them and build on the outpouring of civic activism we’ve seen over the last few months. 

From reshaping high streets to protecting local spaces, we need to trust local communities more to deliver change of their own making. Politics has to connect on an emotional level with people and they have to see it matters in their community. That’s the only way to build trust. 

Labour has an awful lot of work to do to get anywhere near this, but they have at least recognised an issue the government ignores on a daily basis. When the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, was repeatedly asked by the BBC’s Nick Robinson recently, why should people trust him, he failed to offer any answer. 

The more they are asked this question, the more they should worry.    

There’s some irony then in that while critics of Starmer accuse him of being “too timid” and lacking revolutionary instincts, he is currently pursuing the most radical idea in politics.

It may not excite the base or have the faithful in raptures at party rallies, but the painfully long, slow and difficult job of rebuilding trust in our politics is the catalyst to transform public life.

Anyone who cares about our democracy should hope he succeeds.

Nazir Afzal OBE is the former chief crown prosecutor.