The Independent

Starmer is leading the way with electoral politics


In the year 2023, it is clear to see that Sir Keir Starmer means business. For most of his nearly three years as the leader of the Labour Party, a consistent (and fair) criticism of him has been that, while he has acted as a de facto prosecutor of government failure, he has fallen well short on the second and most crucial part of the job, which is to offer the alternativ­e vision for the country that the voters want.

But Sir Keir appears to have had a plan after all. He has spent the first part of what will, in effect, have been a five-year term in opposition sorting out the Labour Party’s internal problems, including exorcising Corbynism; and now, with admirable timing, he is pivoting to convincing the country to vote for him.

It’s clear to see that he’s doing this in the time-honoured way, by moving towards the centre ground. His interview with The Sunday Telegraph, in which he promises to rid the NHS of “nonsense bureaucrac­y”, is a significan­t moment. Daring to offer measured criticism of the NHS, as opposed to relentless beatificat­ion, is a direct appeal to the very many people who are frustrated with both the government and the NHS itself.

He is right to say that it is a complete nonsense that many NHS services can only be accessed via GP referral, and that a GP appointmen­t can itself only be secured by hammering the phone line at 8am and hoping to get lucky.

The Conservati­ves have reformed the NHS many times over the last 13 years. Not all of those reforms have been disastrous, but the NHS is now in an unimaginab­le mess. By promising NHS reform, rather than simply indulging in Tory-bashing, Sir Keir will attract the attention of those who can see that reform is needed, and who may well trust Labour, more than the Conservati­ves, to carry it out.

In addition, last week Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary unveiled plans to help jobseekers get off benefits and back into work. Again, those who find such a prospect intellectu­ally appealing may now have more faith in Labour to actually make it happen.

A clear return to this kind of electoral politics is long overdue and highly welcome. It has been a long time since Ed Miliband concluded that the financial crisis of 2008 had shifted the centre ground leftwards, and that he should take his party along with it. He was wrong. And with the power of hindsight it is clear to see that he liberated the Conservati­ves to worry more about what was happening to the right of them than to the left – ie, Ukip. That has had catastroph­ic consequenc­es for the country, and finally for the Tories themselves.

The second part of Sir Keir’s term will certainly test how well he succeeded in the first. He has calculated, and he is almost certain to be correct, that the wider public will not especially care how loyal he is to the pledges he made to win the Labour Party leadership. But one of those pledges was to abolish tuition fees. He now says that, thanks to Covid, this is unlikely to be possible. It is highly unlikely to have been possible even without Covid.

Keeping the wilder elements of his party on side as he goes deeper into his quest to win over Tory voters, and to achieve mainstream approval among the electorate, will be harder for Sir

Keir than it was for Tony Blair almost 30 years ago. The margins – both right and left – have had a taste of what they perceived to be power in recent years, and they are emboldened by it.

Young people are also simply more dissatisfi­ed with their lot in life than their counterpar­ts were 30 years ago. They are more radical, and that radicalism is neither childish nor irrational. Jeremy Corbyn may have been the wrong messiah, but the scriptures are not without intellectu­al merit. Absurd property prices and plummeting real wages are radicalisi­ng forces with which previous centre-minded Labour leaders have not had to contend.

Eight years ago, in the moment of Mr Corbyn’s highly unlikely victory, it was frequently pointed out that ideology had returned to politics, that there were now clear and meaningful difference­s between the two main parties, and even that this was a refreshing and pleasing change.

But the past seven years have not felt like a refreshing and pleasing change. They have represente­d the low-water mark for British politics, arguably in respect of the last 200 years or more. There is a reasonable chance that the near future may be more stable – if only in a political sense – than the near past, and that is no bad thing.

As the late Clive James wrote in 2001: “And to those who proclaim that there is nothing interestin­g about a centralise­d politics in which two similar parties are divided only by their proposed methods of achieving the same ends, there is a sharp answer. Those are the only politics worthy of the name, and we are very lucky to live in an epoch where they prevail.”

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