Our PhD student, Jo Rothery, evaluates Keir Starmer’s performance at the recent Labour Party Conference
The Labour Party Conference last week was Sir Keir Starmer’s first opportunity to set out his vision for the future of the Labour Party after becoming leader during the Covid pandemic. Starmer thanked those loyal Labour voters who had prevented the “party from obliteration” but explained it was now his job to persuade those voters who had left Labour to return.
Starmer outlined several much-anticipated policies that Labour would adopt going forward. Despite outlining Labour’s post Corbyn future, the policies represented a mixture of different strategies from Labour’s history. The overarching theme in all of them however, appeared to be a desire to win back Labour’s previously loyal, working-class voters who turned to the Conservatives in 2019, particularly in the Red Wall. There was also an appeal to those voters who turned to the Green Party in the local elections earlier in 2021.
A Vision Based on Labour’s Past
Starmer focused much rhetoric on the notion of “smart government” and emphasised Britain’s future role as a leader in technology. This was reminiscent of Harold Wilson’s scientific and technological revolution policy that was intended to strengthen the economy back in 1963 (Jones 1996). The current Labour leader’s vision includes using scientific innovations in the NHS, schools and as part of the Green New Deal. His win at conference, albeit slim, in changes to leadership election rules, represents a move to more control in deciding a party leader from the more moderate Parliamentary Labour Party. Rule changes also make it harder for MPs to be deselected by party members. This again echoes Old Labour, allowing tighter control from the party leader which happened in the late 1980s and 1990s under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and then Tony Blair.
New, New Labour?
Starmer’s vision also drew direct parallels with New Labour. He proclaimed “education is so important I am tempted to say it three times” recalling Tony Blair’s famous speech in 1996 where he explained his three main priorities for government were “education, education, education”. Interestingly, New Labour expanded the numbers of those entering higher education, leading some of the voters in the Red Wall that Starmer wants to win back to feel politically disaffected in the more highly educated, progressive, and liberal society they found themselves in. Starmer’s education policy, however, comes in a different guise to Blair’s, with a drive to – borrowing the Conservative Party’s current mantra – ‘level up’ the lives of children through a curriculum based on practical life skills.
Also akin to Blair, Starmer’s vision hopes to gain support from businesses, promising to work with those sectors that are already successful but also supporting smaller business. This includes the revival of the Red Wall towns that declined with deindustrialisation and a promise of local procurement through Labour’s “Buy, Make and Sell in Britain” programme. Importantly, like Blair, Starmer impressed upon his audience that his vison for a “good society” or “contribution society” (echoing Blair’s stakeholder society) must be accompanied by a strong economy. Here he promised three things: help for smaller businesses by making taxation between small and large businesses fairer, a commitment to “chase down every penny” so that working people get value for money for the taxes they pay and finally, the greater part of the burden of taxation being taken off working people. Assurances were also given that any promises made could be paid for, in stark contrast to the perception of Labour party policies under Corbyn in 2019.
For many of the voters in the Red Wall that Labour lost in 2019, it was cultural values that influenced their party choice, leaving the EU being key. Over half of the different sections of Leave voters stated that crime was also an important issue for them. Echoing New Labour’s priority to get ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, Starmer – a lawyer by training and former head of the Crown Prosecution Service – promised to give more legal protections to victims, longer sentences for sexual offences and to crack down on anti-social behaviour.
Labour for the Future
There were, however, some policies that were less anchored in Labour’s past. One area was tackling climate change, a hugely salient issue facing governments across the world at the present time. Starmer made several commitments: a Climate Investment Pledge to cut emissions and the upgrading of homes as part of this; the public funding of green projects; the Clean Air Act and a commitment to invest 28 billion a year in the country’s transition to a green economy. Furthermore, Starmer finally addressed Brexit, explaining he saw a way forward after leaving the EU through investment in people and places.
The Labour Party conference demonstrated Starmer’s move towards a more pragmatic approach to taking power, he himself explaining he was more interested in winning power than party unity. His first conference speech as party leader was, notwithstanding the occasional heckle, largely well received by the membership present at conference who gave a number of standing ovations. As yet, the polls do not show whether the tactic of pragmatic appeal to Labour’s lost voters will work. Only time will tell whether Starmer’s future vision represents a slow march back to possible victory or just another rehash of Labour’s past.
References: Jones, T. (1996) Remaking the Labour Party- From Gaitskell to Blair. London: Routledge.
Jo Rothery is a PhD student in Politics and International Relations. Her working title is ‘Progressive Nationalism? The Territorialisation of the Labour Party’. The research examines how evolving sub-state nationalism has impacted on Labour Party politics in England, Scotland and Wales; voters’ perceptions of Labour’s nationalist credentials in the sub-state territories; how the Labour Parties in each nation have adapted to multi-level governance and what the changing constitution means for future of the Labour Party.