Sir Keir Starmer’s speech on Thursday has come not a moment too soon. Frustration has been growing within his party about the limited nature of the Labour leader’s recent ambition and impact as the first anniversary of his election nears. Sir Keir’s early attacks on government competence were well made and boosted Labour ratings. But these are showing diminishing returns, and Covid politics may soon be ending. The slippage has been accentuated by the success of the vaccination rollout over the last two months.
Recent polls have shown the Conservative party re-establishing a lead and a boost for Boris Johnson’s ratings. Labour dissatisfaction with its leader has been growing as a result. Internal divisions had begun to simmer again. With important elections also looming in early May, it was urgent that the Labour leader should show supporters a more positive sense of political direction than merely bashing the Tories over pandemic failures. Sir Keir needed to lead. His voters needed to believe.
A single speech is not going to transform those concerns all on its own. But it was a start. It is important to acknowledge that the process is not easy and will not be quick. Labour has been out of government for 11 years. It has struggled to find a consistent voice, articulate a national programme and even to show it knows who its voters now are. The pandemic has made party politics tougher. Incumbents have dominated the agenda and the airwaves, and there is little space for opposition parties. But the long march back will never arrive unless it begins.
Sir Keir’s overarching belief is that there is a mood for change in Britain that bears comparison with the mood in 1945. This is natural Labour high ground and well chosen. It invokes the national spirit on which Labour was able to rebuild Britain under Clement Attlee after the second world war. It also invokes the necessity of radical measures to achieve the necessary rebuilding. Sir Keir is right that, in the wake of the financial crisis and Covid, people now expect more from government today. But he was careful to promise that good government must be the partner of good business, not its enemy.
The opposition leader did not provide much detail. His practical proposals were familiar and family-focused – maintaining the £20 uplift in universal credit, ending the public sector pay freeze, and extending the furlough – though none the worse for that. His headline proposal was a so-called British recovery bond to attract savers. That ticks a lot of political boxes, including patriotism, common endeavour and borrowing to invest, and some economic ones. The chancellor may pinch the idea for his 3 March budget. But Sir Keir certainly staked a claim that Rishi Sunak cannot match: to speak for those who know there can be no return to the old political economy that gave Britain its decade of austerity after 2010.
Labour should in practice have little difficulty uniting behind this message. An intriguing possibility is that Mr Johnson may try to seize some of the same ground himself. Though he is certainly not a reincarnated post-1945 tax-and-spend Tory, the prime minister is a political free-wheeler who is more aware that the old normal is not sustainable in the wake of Covid, Brexit and the 2019 election gains in the north and Midlands. Plenty of Tories do not accept this, Mr Sunak perhaps among them.
Next month’s budget will therefore be an important sign of the direction of travel. Sir Keir calls it a “fork in the road” moment. He is gambling that the chancellor has the upper hand and that Mr Johnson is not serious. He is right to put the Conservatives on the spot. Tory divisions on political economy are extremely real. The speech gives Labour some control over the political narrative of the vital May elections. But this is a marathon, not a sprint.