The Starmer AuditThree Years On, has the Labour Leader Kept his Pledges?
On the three-year anniversary of Keir Starmer becoming Labour Leader, Adam Bienkov analyses whether he has kept to his word or broken it
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Keir Starmer became Leader of the Labour Party three years ago this week. In his victory speech he promised to “bring our party together” while demonstrating that antisemitism had been “torn out” from the party by its roots.
He also committed to implementing 10 key pledges from his campaign to become Labour Leader.
But for each of those pledges, as well as his broader aims, how well or badly has he done so far?
Economic Justice: 7/10
Starmer’s first pledge during his campaign was for a fairer tax system. He committed to increase income tax for high earners, reverse cuts to corporation tax and clamp down on tax avoidance.
So far he has stuck to his broad pledges on income and corporation tax, as well as tax avoidance.
However, last week Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said she was opposed to plans to raise capital gains tax and announced a review of corporate taxes, suggesting that she would support “any genuine, affordable moves in capital allowances that support business investment”.
It remains to be seen exactly what this means. However, it does suggest that we could soon see a potential shift away from Starmer’s previous commitments on economic justice.
Social Justice: 5/10
Starmer’s second pledge was actually a series of separate pledges grouped together under the heading of ‘social justice’. These were to:
- Abolish universal credit
- End the Government’s sanctions regime
- Make health as important as GDP
- Invest in preventative care
- Stand up for a universal NHS
- Support abolition of tuition fees
- Invest in lifelong learning
In the intervening years, Labour has dropped its pledge to abolish universal credit and turned it into a plan to “fundamentally reform it”, with the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary saying earlier this year that “we actually agree with the concept behind Universal Credit”.
Labour’s commitment to universal healthcare does remain. However, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting has caused controversy by promising to introduce more private involvement in the NHS.
One pledge that Starmer does appear to have broken, is his commitment to abolish tuition fees. A Labour spokesperson told Byline Times last year that the party only remained committed to “reforming” student fees, rather than abolishing them altogether.
Climate Justice: 7/10
“There is no issue more important to our future than the climate emergency,” Keir Starmer told Labour Party members during his campaign, as he promised to back a “Green New Deal” and demand “international action on climate rights”.
When it comes to policy, there has been little deviation from this pledge from Starmer.
However, he did cause some controversy last year after demanding a clampdown on climate protestors, to the consternation of one such protestor who confronted him at an event in Scotland.
Promote Peace & Human Rights: ?/10
Keir Starmer became Leader with a pledge to put “human rights at the heart of foreign policy” which he said would make Britain “a force for international peace and justice”.
He also included a pledge for a review of all UK arms sales, and a commitment for “no more illegal wars”, which he said he would back with a new ‘Prevention of Military Intervention’ Act.
Since then, we have heard relatively little from Starmer on any of these issues.
Possibly this may be partly due to the international focus on the war in Ukraine. However, there are other signs that it may also signal a shift in his position.
For instance, Starmer’s previous opposition to the Iraq War – which he labelled an “illegal war” during his campaign – has now been muted. Last month’s anniversary of the conflict came and went without a comment from the Labour Leader himself, although his spokesman did eventually confirm to Byline Times that he does still stand by his previous comments about that war.
Overall though, it is difficult to meaningfully judge Starmer’s performance on his foreign policy pledges at this stage.
Common Ownership: 3/10
One of the biggest U-turns Starmer has made since becoming Leader is his abandonment of his pledge during his campaign to back the nationalisation of public utilities such as rail, mail, energy and water.
While his commitment on public ownership of the railways does remain, and while he has made a separate commitment to a new publicly-owned energy company, he has clearly ditched his commitment to fully nationalise significant parts of the rest of the economy.
Defend Migrants’ Rights: 5/10
Perhaps the biggest area of controversy during Starmer’s leadership has been his abandonment of his previous opposition to Brexit.
During his campaign Starmer pledged to “defend free movement as we leave the EU”. He has since abandoned that pledge, with his spokesman telling Byline Times last month that there would be “no return to freedom of movement, no return to the Customs Union, no return to the Single Market”.
After previously leading calls for a second referendum, Starmer has also now insisted that he will instead “make Brexit work”.
It is also debatable as to the extent to which Starmer has met his pledges to “defend migrants’ rights” and back an “immigration system based on compassion and dignity”.
While Labour is opposed to the Government’s Rwanda scheme and its plan to effectively ban most asylum claims in the UK, Labour’s opposition has focused mostly on the effectiveness of the Government’s plan, rather than upon the rights of migrants, or the overall morality of what ministers are doing.
It is likely that a Labour government would be significantly more compassionate towards migrants and refugees than Sunak’s administration, but this is not a particularly high bar to clear. Overall, this is an area where Starmer and his party could do better.
Strengthen Workers’ Rights & Unions: 7/10
Another area where Starmer’s leadership has caused controversy is on workers’ rights. So far Labour has remained opposed to the Government’s plans to impose new restrictions on strikes and Starmer has committed to repealing any new legislation targeting unions, should he enter government.
However, his ban on shadow ministers appearing on picket lines has gone down badly with trade unions, as has his public opposition to some recent strike actions. This does appear to be a partial break of his pledge to stand “shoulder to shoulder with trade unions”.
While his reticence on strike action has angered some Labour supporters, it is arguably not massively surprising that a government-in-waiting would not explicitly back individual strikes, while still backing the right of unions to launch them. So, while the tone taken by Starmer and his front-bench will displease many in the party, the broad thrust of this pledge does appear to have been kept so far.
Devolution of Power, Wealth & Opportunity: 8/10
One area where Labour remains committed to significant change is on devolution and constitutional reform.
Despite some briefings to the contrary, he has so far continued to commit to abolishing the House of Lords, while backing significant devolution to the regions. Of course, as with all of these pledges, we may only know the extent to which he plans to fully follow through on these, if and when he becomes Prime Minister.
Another area of controversy for Starmer in recent months has been his position on equality, and in particular, trans rights.
In recent weeks, he has suggested that he has “concerns” about Scotland’s gender recognition plans, despite Labour in Scotland backing them, and said that there should be a “reset” of the issue. While it remains unclear what this will mean in practice, it does appear that he is laying the ground for Labour to at least partially retreat from its previous strong support for greater rights for trans people. This has gone down very badly with some backbench MPs in the party.
The issue of race also remains deeply contested within Labour.
While Starmer has clearly done much to make Jewish people feel more welcome in the party, a recent report by KC Martin Forde into allegations of bullying, racism and sexism within Labour, has yet to be properly responded to by Starmer.
In particular, Forde’s allegation that there is a ‘hierarchy’ of racism within the party, with prejudice towards black and other ethnic minorities being treated less seriously than other forms of racism, is yet to receive a full response. Asked by Byline Times last month about Forde’s claims, Starmer’s spokesman said that the party completely “rejects” any suggestion of a hierarchy of racism in the party.
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Effective Opposition: 6.5/10
Starmer’s final big pledge was to provide “effective, forensic opposition” to the Government. The extent to which people will judge he has fulfilled this pledge is clearly subjective.
On the one hand, he was effective at highlighting, in Parliament, the dishonesty and corruption of the Johnson regime in its final months. He has also undoubtedly turned around Labour’s electoral position, with Labour now consistently and significantly ahead of the Government in the polls.
Despite this, Starmer’s own ratings remain mediocre. Exclusive new polling for Byline Times, conducted by Omnisis, finds that just 33% of voters believe he has done a “good job” as Labour leader, compared to 16% who think he has done a bad job. The remaining 51% of voters either say they don’t know, or believe he has been neither bad nor good. While these are still net positive ratings, they are hardly a glowing endorsement for his leadership.
Other parts of Starmer’s performance also remain contested.
His commitment to root out antisemitism in the party has broadly been successful, with prominent Jewish Labour members now returning to the party. However, his other pledge to “unite our party, promote pluralism and improve our culture” has clearly not been met.
Factionalism within Labour remains as evident as ever, with the left of the party complaining that they feel under constant attack from the Labour leader and his allies.
In particular, Starmer’s recent decision to block Jeremy Corbyn from standing as a Labour MP has angered many on the left of the party, and led to allegations of hypocrisy due to his previous stated support for him. Candidate selections for the next general election also appear to have been ruthlessly managed by Labour’s central office, with very few genuine left-wingers making it through the selection process.
Suspicions that Starmer plans to find a way of purging other Labour left MPs also remain strong among that wing of the party, following his comments suggesting that the “door is open” for those who do not like the changes he has made, to leave.
For Starmer’s supporters, such tactics are part of his pledge to make Labour an effective opposition once again. There does appear to be some public support for this. New Byline polling, conducted by Omnisis and published today, finds that more voters support Starmer’s decision to block Corbyn from standing again, than oppose it, with 43% saying it was the right decision, compared to just 29% who say it was the wrong decision.
Of course, the extent to which people will agree with Starmer’s overall approach to restoring Labour’s electoral fortunes will differ. However, it is hard to argue that he has also met his pledge to “unite” the party and “promote pluralism”.
As a result, while Starmer has clearly made a great deal of progress towards restoring Labour’s position after a heavy defeat in 2019, questions do still remain about the honesty of his intentions, his political priorities and his ability to lead a united party into government.