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The heart of Starmerism

The Labour leader’s plan for a fairer country where the government is trustworthy and delivers public services is one we can all get behind

The Labour leader’s vision for a fairer UK is heavy on ambition but light on the detail of how to achieve it. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty

Would you buy a used car from this man? If the salesman were Boris Johnson, the question is redundant. If it were Rishi Sunak, you would probably be wary, particularly if his sidekick, Jezza Hunt, was extolling the state of the vehicle. But if it were Keir Starmer standing on the forecourt, then I suspect he’d be in with a chance of a sale. A solid chap; he might lack a great line in patter but you wouldn’t imagine him guilty of turning back the milometer.

Inevitably, as the election gets closer and a Starmer victory seems ever more likely, the clamour to know exactly what it is that the prime minister-in-waiting has to sell is getting louder. Starmer is treading carefully. His gameplan since becoming party leader has been clear: sort out the mess in his own backyard while upsetting as few voters as possible.

The first he accomplished with a degree of quiet ruthlessness that might have earned the admiration of Don Corleone. As Rishi Sunak is bounced around by the warring factions within the Conservative Party, Starmer is constantly reminding us that he has changed his party.

But when it comes to setting out what that changed party will achieve, Starmer is more reticent and with good reason. The largest possible majority in parliament gives him the best chance of implementing his ideas. Why jeopardise that potential majority by frightening off voters who are currently motivated by the simple objective of “getting this lot out”? Some of these will never have voted Labour before. If Starmer sounds too left wing, he risks driving them into the waiting embrace of Reform.

So he treads carefully, aware too that the parlous state of the nation’s finances severely limits his room for manoeuvre. If he starts promoting an idea and then puts a price tag on it, he plays straight into the hands of the government, which has already drained the coffers dry and taken Britain deep into debt. By way of example, consider the painful saga of Starmer’s planned £28bn green deal: the ambition was unarguably sensible but citing the ultimate cost – a spurious figure anyhow, given how bills for various components will fluctuate – was a gift to the Conservatives. Eventually, he was forced to drop it.

That episode is likely to ensure that the Labour manifesto, when it emerges, has been kept in check by the fierce grip of the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, and there will be no unfunded promises. It is unlikely that there will be threats of new personal taxes, given the desire to win the votes of former Tory supporters. But, once in power, the new government may have to concede that, having delved into the books and interrogated the numbers, more cash has to be raised and that taxation is the inevitable route.

Starmer has spelt out what he wants the next Labour government to achieve. In a 2021 pamphlet for the Fabian Society that plodded on for more than 13,000 words, he painted a picture of a fairer society in which families and communities trumped the culture of individualism that he saw as a product of the years of Conservative government. The words “security” and “opportunity” pepper the treatise. And he recognises the sense of powerlessness that has engulfed some sections of society. “The desire of people across the country to have real power and control – expressed most forcibly in the Brexit vote – remains unmet,” he wrote.

In his biography of Starmer, Tom Baldwin portrays a character whose solid, working-class family gave him a base from which he was able to go to university, build a successful career as a barrister and, ultimately, become director of public prosecutions.

While such stellar careers cannot be available to all, Starmer believes that such opportunities for advancement have reduced and that “circumstances of birth” have too great an influence on people’s future prospects. He is almost lyrical as he spells out his ambition for every child to have the chance to play an instrument, visit the seaside, experience theatre and generally be exposed to the best of what life has to offer before they reach the age of ten.

Having been penned as the country was emerging from the pandemic, Starmer’s pamphlet calls for a government that embraces “honesty, decency and transparency,” and avoids wasteful spending. While calling for an economy that works for citizens and communities, it extolls the importance of private enterprise and recognises the need for the public and private sector to cooperate for the maximum benefit of society.

Starmer is highly critical of the Conservative Party for promoting nationalism rather than patriotism. Three years on, with Lee Anderson, the former Tory deputy chairman, resorting to dangerous rhetoric about “wanting my country back”, and the homicidal musings of a Tory donor making headlines, he might make more of this important distinction.

The pamphlet is heavy on ambitions and light on the routes to achieving them, nonetheless it does offer those in search of the philosophy of Starmerism a decent primer. A good editor could easily translate it into a pithy credo that would appeal to a majority of voters.

Keir Starmer wants a fairer country, where government can be trusted and public services deliver, helped by a thriving private sector; a country where people feel in control of their lives. He might even add that he would ensure the UK benefits from strong relations with its EU neighbours.

Most of us would buy that.

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