The Labour leader needs to convince a weary public that he has the bold ideas to divert the UK from its damaging path under the Conservatives, argues Chris Painter

As the UK experiences its worst industrial relations crisis since the 1980s, attention is starting to turn to Keir Starmer’s task in shaping a potential Labour Government. It is a task that becomes all the more pressing as public support for the Conservatives declines amid a bitter and damaging leadership contest.

The dilemma faced by Starmer is that he must reconcile the contradictory electoral impulses of seeking to remove the fears of floating voters, with a radical enough offer to persuade a disillusioned public that the Party offers them fresh hope. Such is the gravity of the crisis facing this country, that without bold policy thinking millions will feel abandoned by the democratic process. 

Starmer’s priority since being elected Leader has been neutralising negatives associated with his party, which Boris Johnson has sought to emphasise through his Brexit-driven culture wars. 

There have been some signs of Starmer beginning to throw caution to the wind, most notably when he pledged to resign had Durham Constabulary issued a fixed penalty notice for breaching Covid laws. This rare gamble provided handsome dividends in differentiating him from a sleaze-ridden Johnson Premiership. The same was true of his August package to shield consumers from escalating energy costs, leaving the favourite for the Conservative leadership – Liz Truss – stranded with policies suited to very different economic circumstances. But so far these moves have been exceptions to the rule.

Labour grandee Lord Mandelson raised the stakes in a speech in June, encouraging Starmer to “turn the intellectual tide” and aim for a “watershed win”. That still looks like a distant prospect given the electoral mountain Labour has to climb after its heavy 2019 defeat. A game-changer depends upon a programme for office consisting of three inter-related strands, drawing on the best of previous Labour Governments, stretching from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair.

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A radical new offer

The first strand relates to underlying economic performance, given the UK’s anaemic growth and languishing productivity record since the 2007-08 financial crash.

The distinctive intellectual insight Labour can bring is not only that of the protective but also a catalysing state; exercising the financial and regulatory muscle of government to spearhead diversification of what has essentially become a rentier economy. The commitment by Rachel Reeves as Shadow Chancellor to a quantum scaling up of carbon transition investment would be pivotal to such a strategy.

This requires underpinning institutional structures. For the 1964-66 Wilson Governments it was the Department of Economic Affairs and Industrial Re-organisation Corporation. Starmer in his July speech, prioritised economic growth and took a tentative step down this path, proposing an industrial strategy council that would assume a permanent place in economic governance.

The Wilson Government’s growth strategy foundered on a futile attempt to maintain an artificially high fixed international exchange rate for the pound. Comparable problems for a Starmer Premiership point to over-restrictive, self-imposed fiscal rules. The drag on growth and trade friction directly attributable to Johnson’s hard Brexit would also need to be mitigated through a closer relationship with the European Union.

A second crucial strand, partly predicated on the first, is social policy, with the achievements of the Blair Governments in reducing child and pensioner poverty, early year development, and public service investment providing benchmarks. Sustainable social care provision remains elusive, cruelly exposed during the pandemic and which, in combination with health, also calls for institutional imagination. 

Such ambitions provide many potential hostages to fortune at a time of recurring economic disruption. But as long ago as the 1950s, Anthony Crosland emphasised that social democratic ends for a fairer and more equitable society should not be conflated with dogmatic adherence to particular means. It is not just a question of values, however, but as current industrial strife highlights one of restitution of a balance of interests cumulatively dismantled since the 1980s.     

The third and final strand of the policy jigsaw is constitutional reform, moving beyond piecemeal adjustments of the Blair years. The challenge is an inclusive, radically devolved system of governance, in stark contrast to the ‘muscular unionism’ characterising Johnson’s Premiership. Much hope is pinned on a constitutional commission with which former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is closely associated. He has become a strong proponent of a senate of nations and regions, to replace a House of Lords further debased by Johnson’s use of patronage for crude partisan purposes.   

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Given Johnson’s serial misconduct in public office, political reform will also need to place more independent checks on abuse of executive power. All this could burn up political capital and over-crowd the legislative agenda. Yet, without constitutional and political overhaul the British state will become terminally fractured.

University of Sheffield’s Michael Jacobs and Andrew Hindmoor argue that, historically, the Labour Party adopts a redistributive strategy in relatively benign economic conditions and structural reform when the economy is in crisis mode as exemplified by Attlee’s 1945 Administration. Given current multiple economic, social and political crises, elements of both approaches seem appropriate.      

What a Starmer Labour Administration must not do is repeat the centralised control zealotry of Johnson’s Downing Street, nor the suffocating micro management typifying New Labour. It should instead adopt a ruthless strategy of resourcing its key priorities and the institutional architecture required to deliver them. In order to win Labour must spell out what these priorities are and weave them together into a compelling narrative fit for 21st Century Britain. 

Events since the financial crash teach us that social movements such as the new Enough Is Enough campaign, achieve limited outcomes without there also being a concurrent change of Government. Without that change, the alternative is a new Conservative Government which appears devoted to recriminatory Thatcherite ‘revivalism’ and nostalgia for more distant fading glories.

Chris Painter is Professor Emeritus of Public Policy and Management and formerly Head of Social Sciences at Birmingham City University

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