Sir Keir Starmer has often faced calls from supporters and critics alike to clarify what a Labour government would do in office and what its priorities would be. He will face more such calls as the general election nears. As a rule, the Labour leader remains cautious about responding. Critics suspect that is because he has little radical to say. His own reasoning, presumably, is that he is not in the business of putting policies on premature public display that the Conservatives might be tempted to pinch. He also wants the government’s divisions and ineptitude to remain the main political focus. Labour’s polling lead is likely to reassure him that his approach is working.
In a speech on Thursday in Manchester, Sir Keir nevertheless lifted the curtain a little. The speech was not especially inspiring. That isn’t Sir Keir’s style. His theme of “mission-driven” government is designed to reassure, not excite. But the speech was politically clear, strategic and internally consistent. It provided a sharper outline than before of the thinking that will underpin a new Labour government’s more detailed decisions. It also made very clear that Sir Keir takes the long view, and that he is thinking in terms of a potential two-term prime ministership, something Labour has only achieved once in the century and a quarter of its existence.
Sir Keir’s five chosen missions are perhaps predictable: economic growth, NHS renewal, safety in the streets, social mobility and clean energy. But these are all big subjects and the choice cannot seriously be faulted. The five speak to the British people’s profoundest shared anxieties: economic insecurity, a failing health system, the danger of violence, children’s diminished life chances and the climate crisis. All exemplify the broken Britain over which the Tories have presided. And all of them demand new directions rather than the sticking plaster solutions that Sir Keir targeted for criticism.
Sir Keir’s speech centred on a big economic pledge – that Britain would have the highest rate of sustained growth of the G7 nations by the end of its first term. How this would be achieved was less clear. The Labour leader mentioned potential levers, including childcare, planning reform and fixing Brexit, but without much detail. He was explicit that low pay and a London-centric big bang were not the answers. He said nothing about taxes. But he said spending more government money was not always the only answer. He ignored important debates about the sometimes problematic relationship between growth, inequalities and wellbeing.
There were passages that seemed carefully chosen to hint at larger ambitions. Sir Keir seems to think that he can shape a government-led partnership with the private sector, which, as he admitted, would involve a “totally new mindset” from business. Achieving that might need a lot more than two terms. Mention of an industrial strategy “that gets everyone round the table” could imply a large – and overdue – reform of corporate governance and workplace codetermination. The need for every region and nation of the UK “to be heard” and for institutions to be “respected, not bypassed” may suggest that machinery of government reform is high on Labour’s priority list. Hints, though, are not manifesto commitments. Sir Keir has drawn an important outline. He now needs to start filling it in.
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