Perfect platform for Sir Keir

Lowering the stakes

Starmer’s promise to be ‘New Labour on steroids’ is not about being exciting, but boring. Eddie Ford offers some thoughts on mainstream politics

Sir Keir Starmer must be pleased with the reaction to his speech to the Progressive Britain conference on May 13, which attracted a lot of media attention. Now that the Labour Party is the largest party in local government for the first time since 2002, with the Tories losing more than 1,000 seats on May 4, he must increasingly feel that the only way is up - unless he does or says something extraordinarily stupid. No10 is tantalisingly close for a man who, as some on the left stupidly argued, did not really want to beat the Tories and become prime minister. He only wanted to defeat the left.

Of course, Progressive Britain is the perfect venue for such a speech. It has been a rightwing incubus within Labour for decades, founded precisely to support the New Labour leadership of Tony Blair and provide training for like-minded people seeking selection as Labour candidates. The party is prepared for a “dirty and nasty” campaign ahead of next year’s general election, Starmer said - something that is hard to doubt. Therefore, according to him, the project of reforming the party root and branch in the aftermath of the Jeremy Corbyn era - a traumatic disaster never to be repeated - must go much further than anything Tony Blair was able to do. For Sir Keir, reforms were urgently necessary because an incoming Labour government will have bigger tasks. That is why Starmer thinks his government would have to be 1945, 1964 and 1997 all rolled into one (and then some more).

Naturally, as it has totemic status amongst the Labour right (our ‘finest hour’), he highlighted Blair’s move in 1995 to rewrite clause four. True, from a Marxist perspective the original formulation was a Fabian nonsense anyway, but the rewrite was an open love letter to the bourgeoisie and its media about how Labour was now a sensible party fully committed to capitalism - so stuff like mass nationalisation represented the dreadful ‘old Labour’ past. Anyhow, Starmer told the conference that “this is about taking our party back to where we belong and where we should always have been” (indeed, about “back doing what we were created to do” - which is more than arguable, but leave that aside for now). Getting into his stride, the Labour leader declared that the task ahead is about “rolling our sleeves up, changing our entire culture, our DNA” - this will be like Tony Blair’s “clause four on steroids”. Extra claps, please!

In a not particularly original line of thought - but that is Starmer all over - he went on to attack the Tories for being “unconservative” and failing to understand people’s need for “stability, order, security”. Rishi Sunak’s party, he said, does not stand up for “our rivers and seas, not our NHS or BBC, not our families, not our nation” - but “we must understand there are precious things in our way of life” and “in our environment”. However, Starmer reassured everybody, it is Labour’s responsibility to protect and preserve and to pass on to future generations” - before coming to what might have been the big sales pitch: “And if that sounds conservative, then let me tell you: I don’t care” - after all, “somebody has got to stand up for the things that make this country great, and it isn’t going to be the Tories”. Conservation, not Conservatism - get the message?

Inevitably, given Labour’s impressive gains in the local elections, but also the strong showing for the Liberal Democrats, there was much speculation about a possible hung parliament, coalitions, and so on. But Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s national campaign coordinator (ie,  election chief), popped up on the media to shoot down such chatter - insisting that the party was on course for an absolute majority. Yes, she remarked, there was “polite disagreement with some of the psephologists” who extrapolated the local election data to predict a hung parliament, given that last week’s voting did not take place in Scotland, Wales or London. Yet, if you look at the “fuller picture”, with Labour especially confident of making gains in Scotland - which is a reasonable expectation - Mahmood believes that Labour is on course for victory without any grubby deals with the Lib Dems or anyone else.


On this it is quite conceivable that the media will run an updated version of Cleggmaina in order to boost the possibilities of a coalition government, the de-Labourisation of Labour and a return to the wonderful days of the 19th century, when Tory governments replaced Liberal governments and vice versa … and the working class was mere voting fodder. Whether or not they can do it with Sir Ed Davey is another matter. Labour is certainly counting on Lib Dem voters in the local elections going over to Labour in a general election when it is about choosing a government (the same applies with disorientated SNP voters in Scotland).

Almost as Sir Keir had just finished speaking came the leaking of 86 pages of National Policy Forum proposals for debate - including measures such as day-one rights for workers, billions of pounds of green investment, reform of childcare, and a huge expansion of NHS staffing, as well as votes at 16.1 In other words, early, early work on Labour’s manifesto.

Was it a cunning leak by Sir Keir and his team? Was it sabotage? Was it cock-up? Obviously, we do not know. But the chances are this was cock-up - because it resulted, as would be expected, in mixed messages, when it came to both the liberal and conservative media.

Described as an “initial draft - subject to amendment”, it covers six key policy areas. Policies will first be “debated, amended and agreed” by those involved in the NPF, with its members able to submit amendments until June, and then a key meeting in late July. The proposed policies are then “subject to approval” at Labour’s annual conference. Ahead of an election, ‘stakeholders’ will hold a further “clause five meeting” to decide which parts of the programme reach the manifesto. Whatever the fine details, we should expect a bonfire of proposals.

With the stakes now high, Labour is under pressure from trade unions, business, media pundits, etc, to set out its killer policies in the months running up to the Liverpool conference in the autumn. But it will be Sir Keir and his team who will finally decide on the manifesto - and the chances are that it will be anodyne to the point of ‘boring’. Far from being stupid, that is in actual fact a clever approach to take ... well, if you discount global warming, overshooting the 1.5°C target limit and the threat of civilisational collapse (and perhaps generalised nuclear exchange).

Remember, Sir Keir wants to win. He wants to become prime minister. In that sense he is a consummate bourgeois career politician fully in the spirit of a Tony Blair, who did everything he could to ratchet down expectations and triangulate deep into traditional Tory territory. Sir Keir will do exactly that. The official Labour left will predictably wail and gnash their teeth. Just what Sir Keir wants. It will boost his standing with the rightwing media and maybe help dispel any lingering doubts that in some strange way he remains a Pabloite deep entryist bent on a secret mission to bring about the red revolution.

In government it might be different. Under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour talked right but then went on to spend shedloads of money on the NHS, education, welfare, etc. This caught out some leftwing journalists, who, flying on mental autopilot, produced articles about New Labour’s “cuts”, despite record levels of spending - dumbly assuming that governments always cut. Yes, sometimes, but they can also spend big as well. Of course, Blair and Brown inherited a ‘booming’ economy from John Major (in no small part thanks to the ‘creative destruction’ of British industry wrought by the Thatcher government, the smashing of trade union power and the shift to the City and financialisation).

Rishi Sunak will leave no such legacy. With UK growth rates registering a barely perceptible 0.1%, bottom of the G7 league, with the self-inflicted disruption caused by Brexit, with the UK once again talked about as the ‘sick man of Europe’, with inflation over 10% and an ongoing strike wave, a Starmer government will be more 1929 or 1974, than 1945, 1964 or 1997. Nothing is certain though - struggle decides. If the left, the trade unions and the forces of anti-capitalism got their act together - a big ask - it could be another matter.

We certainly need to understand what Sir Keir and his front bench would like to do, if only they could. To get a handle on that we should take a look at the leaked NPF draft. Amongst many things, the NPF proposals talk about rail nationalisation (“public ownership”) and abolition of non-dom status, not to mention how executives of private equity firms will also lose tax breaks - vowing to close a loophole that allows them to minimise how much tax they pay on their “carried interest” in their firm’s profits. There is a commitment to the insourcing of services instead of compulsory outsourcing, and how Labour should “remove the tax loopholes that private schools enjoy” (even if the specifics remain unclear).

This kind of talk goes down badly with the likes of The Times, Telegraph, Express and Mail. Which is exactly why the eventual general election manifesto will be way to the right of such hangovers from the dark days of Corbyn. Already, though, the knives are out. An equals sign is placed between Starmer and the NPF. We read that “Starmer’s plans” would “make it easier for workers to strike” by repealing the Trade Union Act 2016, which introduced higher thresholds for the number of union votes needed for a strike to be legal. And “Starmer wants” to give people “the legal right to work from home”, despite the “growing fears that Britain’s low productivity is undermining the economic recovery”.

Tut-tuttingly, the Telegraph says Starmer’s Labour will “support a full investigation” into the Battle of Orgreave on June 18 1984 - when phalanxes of riot cops attacked striking miners (reported the other way round in the media, the unbiased BBC included). The Torygraph also has it that Sir Keir’s Labour is proposing to “release documents held by government relating to the historic Cammell Laird prosecutions and carry out a review into the jailing of striking workers”. This refers to when workers in Birkenhead were sentenced to a month in prison for contempt of court in 1984 after taking part in industrial action.

But the chances are that Sir Keir and his front bench will be hard pressed to deliver what should be expected to be a famished general election manifesto in 2024. The world economy could easily nose-dive, especially if the Ukraine war takes a turn for the worse with a major escalation or even a full-out war between the US/Nato and Russia (or China over Taiwan). Either way, if only by intention, a Labour government fronted by Sir Keir will be the most rightwing in British history. This is not the inevitable product of Pabloism, but four decades of defeat for the working class in the UK and beyond.


The overall picture is complex, contradictory, but still going to the right with only a few partial exceptions (like the pink tide in Latin America). Globally, there is a movement towards greater state intervention and protectionism - look at the measures the US is taking against China on a near daily basis. This movement can certainly be found in the Tory Party too, as reflected in the recent and sometimes deeply weird National Conservatism conference (one of the guest speakers being no less than Frank Furedi, former leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party). There was an open clash between those defending Sunak’s version of boring and those advocating deregulation and a ‘Thatcherism on steroids’ agenda - thus the attacks on Kemi Badenoch over her “massive climbdown” on scrapping all European Union laws by December 31.

Chances are that Liz Truss is forever toast. But, seemingly, Priti Patel, Suella Braverman and even Boris Johnson are looking for their chance - not this year for sure, nor the next, but the year after - of replacing Rishi Sunak as leader of the opposition.

  1. labourlist.org/2023/05/labour-manifesto-2024-election-what-policies-npf-party.↩︎