The writer is a political strategist and former adviser to Tony Blair and Julia Gillard
Labor leader Keir Starmer has that essential but underrated political quality: luck. A year ago, with his leadership hanging by a thread, he narrowly won the Batley and Spen by-election. Late last year, when partygate was seen by most observers as a ‘Westminster bubble’ story, he decided to tackle the issue head-on, ultimately leading to the reversal of Boris Johnson by the Conservative parliamentary party last week. And ending a tumultuous week when politics focused on behavior below ethical standards, Starmer was cleared of any breaches of Covid-19 rules by Durham Police.
The cruel irony of the opposition means that Starmer’s successful role in dethroning Johnson leaves Labor little bandwidth this summer. Instead, politics will be dominated by the Conservative leadership election. At a time when the UK faces multiple challenges – the cost of living, NHS waiting lists and a housing crisis – the focus will be on the next Prime Minister, not the Starmer’s policies.
But the next two months offer a crucial opportunity to create the dividing lines on which the next elections will be held. Indeed, he began this process with his speech last week, promising that under Labor “Britain will not return to the EU. We will not join the single market. We will not join a customs union”. It was badly needed, and an example of Sir Lynton Crosby’s mantra of ‘getting the barnacles off the boat’ – removing the distracting negatives before making the positive case. But it was also a good time for Starmer, as the debate over how to make Brexit work will be a prime battleground for Tory leadership candidates.
Now Starmer must clarify Labour’s position on the remaining issues that will frame the Tory race. Already, the various leadership candidates – declared and undeclared – make it clear that tax cuts will be essential. Rachel Reeves’ mantra that the UK is high tax because its “growth is low” puts Labor in a strong position. Labor must insist that we have reached the limits of the tax burden on working people, either through National Insurance or the usurious interest rates charged for student debt. Second, we must stop underfunding public services when the costs are visible everywhere – from the loss of teaching assistants in primary schools to staff shortages in hospitals and backlogs in the courts. Third, that the answer is economic growth, not tax cuts funded by spending cuts.
Labour’s plan is for green growth – £28billion a year to be invested in the ‘reindustrialisation’ of the economy through decarbonisation. This would serve two purposes: Starmer and Reeves can campaign nationwide asking how Burnley, Mansfield or Shotts would use this investment; and it will expose Conservative leadership candidates who suggest bonfires the UK’s existing commitments to climate change.
The leadership race will awaken the Conservatives’ eternal dream of deregulation and letting the market crash. Once again, this is an opportunity for Labor to define itself. Against the fantasy of pushing housing construction into the private sector by reducing planning protections, Starmer is expected to oppose a program to build one million public housing units, similar to post-war New Towns. Green houses that generate blue-collar jobs with a large share for co-ownership would once again democratize real estate heritage. Likewise, Labor should not be on the picket line; but instead he is expected to push for more rights for workers while Tory hopefuls stage a Dutch auction on labor standards.
Finally, Starmer must take these ideas on tour. In just two years he has done what took his predecessor Neil Kinnock eight years – to make Labor competitive and eligible. Now he has to seal the deal. The best way to connect with voters is to meet with them and remind them that you are on their side with forward-looking policies. Keir Starmer had a good week; now it must be a good summer.