Starmer’s speech: the return of meat and potatoes social democracy

By David Osland

The late George HW Bush gloried in his reputation as the most insipid president in recent US history, routinely defusing claims that he was not a big picture guy by frequent jocular reference to ‘the vision thing’.

But criticisms of that kind wound most politicians like little else, and Labour leader Keir Starmer has clearly been stung by accusations of lack of substance, levelled increasingly by the right of the Party as much as the left.

The keynote speech he delivered yesterday was intended to dish these malign charges once and for all, setting out a coherent Starmerite stall Labour will now try to sell to Britain. Did it succeed? Up to a point.

What we got was a statement of meat and potatoes social democracy that will enthuse few on the left, but nevertheless included some positive points.

The New Chapter for Britain – as the address was titled – did not use the word socialism once, and that was entirely by design.

But the break from market fundamentalism implicit in Starmer’s condemnation of “a government that knows the value of public services, not just the price in the market” highlights a baked-in degree of differentiation from New Labour.

“I believe people are now looking for more from their government” is not a sentiment with which governments determined to see the state do less would have been comfortable, and will of course be caricatured by the right as big state paternalism redux.

After four decades in which orthodoxy has scorned the idea that the state can – let alone should – offer Britons economic security, recognition of the role of the state in economics distances Starmer from bourgeois triumphalism.

Concrete commitments include maintenance of the £20 Universal Credit uplift, unspecified extra cash for councils and an end to the pay freeze for key workers, although it is not clear whether than means the entire public sector.

The policies for business support seem common sense and unexceptionable, with lack of detail as to how they might be manifested.

Where British Recovery Bonds differ from gilts with Union Jack branding, we are not told, and start-up loans for small businesses are already in plentiful supply.

Both are essentially supply-side measures, and could just as happily work as tools of the centre right as the centre left.

Also noteworthy was the repeated invocation of the Attlee and Wilson eras, the decision to airbrush out the Blair years entirely, and only a glancing not-by-name sideswipe at Corbyn.

Name-checking the Beveridge Report and the 1945 government as avatars of sanitised radicalism is standard operating procedure when Labour leaders wish to sound vaguely leftish.

They can also be conveniently conjoined, for presentational purposes, with references to the Second World War and the blitz for instant Red Wall appeal.

On the other hand, there was some risk attached to quoting Wilson’s aphorism that “the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”.

Once one of the most commonplace cliches in Labour speechifying, it has been out of favour since 9/11, with the analogy to white Christian invasion of the Middle East a thousand years ago deemed inappropriate for Muslim sensibilities.

Whether used by deliberate choice or as a result of tone deafness, it somehow seemed to hit a wrong note.

But elsewhere, excitable talk of science and technology and support for Britain resurrected two other well-known Wilsonian tropes.

Other Labour leaders didn’t get a look in. No Corbynista broadband communist craziness was on offer, although that matter was handled with what must pass for delicacy in the circumstances.

Meanwhile, 1994-2015 might just as well not have happened, for all the reader will glean of the period from the text.

From a technical standpoint, the speech also fell short of the gold standard, being too loosely structured, and bereft of memorable phrasemaking.

The obligatory backstory section, detailing Starmer’s transformation from a boy from a manual working-class background motivated to build a legal career in order to fight injustice, still managed to make him sound like a sharp-suited lawyer on the make.

The delivery lacked pace. But in fairness, there was no live audience, and not even his strongest supporters regard oratory as Starmer’s strongpoint.

The speech also came too late; six or nine months ago, it might have had rather more impact than it will have at this juncture.

But in so far as it consolidated existing themes and finally established some propositions for both Labour activists and the voting public to grapple with, it can probably be accounted a qualified success.

Not being a Thatcherite and not being a Blairite is a depressingly low bar, I guess. But it is a bar Starmer cleared.

His vision thing may be limited to classic mainstream Labourism. But there are plenty of worse vision things than that.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author.

Image: Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol on the morning of Saturday 1 February 2020, in the Ashton Gate Stadium Lansdown Stand; Author: Rwendland; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts