Starmer needs to change his tune

Published by The i paper (24th July, 2023)

Sometimes, the jibes from political opponents sting since they are so close to the bone – and Michael Gove, as a former journalist, knows better than most of the tribal creatures inhabiting Westminster how to use a waspish turn of phrase. So in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, the Housing Secretary said that seeing Sir Tony Blair on stage last week with Sir Keir Starmer was like watching “a superstar and someone from a shaggy tribute band”. His comparison between the pair, adding that it was like “Mick Jagger and someone from the Counterfeit Stones”, was all the crueller for the way his words struck with such precision at the core of fears about the Labour leader.

Last week underlined these concerns. Labour pulled off a stunning by-election win in a prosperous part of North Yorkshire with the second biggest swing from the Tories since the Second World War. The depth of electoral distaste for the ruling party after 13 shambolic years in government was demonstrated again by a second crushing defeat in the South West, a Liberal Democrat success that showed many people will vote tactically to oust Conservatives. This exposes a party caught in a North-South pincer movement as its post-Brexit coalition collapses amid the cost of living crisis.

The overall Tory vote in three ballots plunged 21 per cent, matching national polling and echoing data from the days leading up to Blair’s victory in 1997. The evidence indicates Rishi Sunak, stuck with similar ratings all year, is heading for landslide defeat. Yet, the headlines focused on Starmer’s stumble in Uxbridge after the Tories clung to an outer London seat they have held for half a century. This followed their effective campaign targeting the capital’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez), ironically introduced by the constituency’s shamed former MP Boris Johnson, but extended by London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Now as Greece burns and parts of the planet wilt in torrid heat, some Tories sense possible salvation in slowing down their drifting environmental policies. Gove, an operative on permanent manoeuvres, also called for relaxation of net zero policies while warning against treating this cause “as a religious crusade”.

Blair’s political antennae might have alerted him to the risks of Ulez and led him to work out ways to blunt Tory attacks. Certainly, the public was given clear sense of New Labour’s mission and its messianic leader before he took power in 1997 – in contrast to Starmer, who still lacks sufficient definition with voters as either a person or a politician. Yet, in many ways those by-elections delivered a fine result for the Labour leader since they show him heading firmly in the right direction towards Downing Street, thus reinforcing his rigid grip on the party machine, while the Uxbridge setback underlines warnings to colleagues about complacency.

One key New Labour player told me he believes the party is in a stronger position than during the last gasps of John Major’s regime: “The Tories felt stale in 1997, but now they feel utterly useless and corrupt, so disrespectful of the public they even inflicted Liz Truss on them.” He claimed this contemptuous stance was highlighted by the trio of by-elections: one held in the seat of an MP suspended for more than a year over lurid allegations; another sparked by an MP who quit in childish petulance after failing to be given a knighthood; the third taking place because a former prime minister was suspended from Parliament for lies over partying during lockdown.

Starmer’s strategy is simple: build as big an anti-Tory coalition as possible while following New Labour’s playbook, adopting positions rigorously tested by pollsters, defusing concerns over his side’s spendthrift inclinations, and above all, saying nothing of any real consequence while chanting empty mantras about reform. His timidity was shown again by saying a Labour government would not scrap the two-child benefit cap. This stance may be successful, but it is also deeply cynical. He cuddled up to the left to win the leadership, talking of state ownership and “no more illegal wars”, but now clads himself in Blair’s cast-offs while basking in the glow of a diabolical leader who devastated the Middle East with an illicit invasion of Iraq, an atrocity so grim it was even used by Vladimir Putin to excuse his attack on Ukraine.

Starmer would claim to be a pragmatist, driven only by desire to attain power for his party. Voters will be presented with a choice for prime minister at the next election between two rather dull technocrats; although uninspiring, this is significantly better than the devil’s choice offered in 2019 between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer will then have to reveal himself properly in power since governing involves decisions and responding to events, having relied on public desperation to see the back of the Tories after 13 years of austerity, Brexit and chaos.

One Labour insider said he was worried things could sour quickly if Labour wins simply by promising a bit more competence while riding this anti-Tory wave – especially if their rivals were to return to sanity rather than continue with self-immolation.

Few citizens will cast their votes filled with much hope that Starmer has the ability, let alone the ideas or vision, to solve the myriad of huge problems confronting our country. His honeymoon may be short, his political capital spent fast, amid a toxic mood of mistrust that can be traced back to the Iraq war. Unlike Blair, handed a golden inheritance by his predecessor, he looks set to land a hideous legacy with a sluggish economy, struggling public services, high taxes, rent-seeking capitalism and still suffering from the mess of Brexit. Starmer should bear in mind that Britain desperately needs fresh acts rather than tribute bands playing the same old songs.

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