Starmer’s job must be radical to save us from a Thatcher reboot

The Labor leader must convince a weary public he has the bold ideas to steer the UK off its damaging path under the Tories, claims Chris Painter

As the UK experiences its worst industrial relations crisis since the 1980s, attention is beginning to turn to Keir Starmer’s task in forming a potential Labor government. It’s a task that’s becoming all the more pressing as public support for the Conservatives wanes amid a bitter and damaging leadership race.

The dilemma facing Starmer is that he must reconcile the conflicting electoral impulses of seeking to eliminate the fears of floating voters, with an offer radical enough to persuade a disillusioned public that the Party offers them new hope. The gravity of the crisis facing this country is such that, without bold political reflection, millions of people will feel abandoned by the democratic process.

Starmer’s priority since being elected leader has been to neutralize the negatives associated with his party, something Boris Johnson has sought to underline through his Brexit-focused culture wars.

There were signs Starmer was starting to wave caution, including when he pledged to resign if Durham Constabulary issued a fixed penalty notice for breaking Covid laws. This rare bet provided handsome dividends setting it apart from a sleazy Johnson Premiership. So does his August package to protect consumers from escalating energy costs, leaving the Tory leadership favorite – Liz Truss – stuck with policies suited to very different economic circumstances. But so far, these moves have been exceptions to the rule.

Labor great Lord Mandelson upped the ante in a speech in June, encouraging Starmer to “turn the intellectual tide” and aim for a “decisive victory”. That still seems a distant prospect given the electoral mountain Labor must climb after its heavy defeat in 2019. A game-changer depends on an office program made up of three interrelated strands, drawing on the best of Labor governments precedents, ranging from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair.


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A radical new offer

The first is underlying economic performance, given the UK’s anemic growth and languid productivity record since the financial crash of 2007-2008.

The distinctive intellectual insight that work can bring is not just that of protecting but also a catalyst state; wielding the financial and regulatory muscle of government to lead the diversification of what has essentially become a rentier economy. The commitment of Rachel Reeves as Shadow Chancellor to a quantitative increase in investments in the carbon transition would be essential to such a strategy.

This requires underlying institutional structures. For the Wilson governments from 1964 to 1966, it was the Department of Economic Affairs and Industrial Reorganization. Starmer, in his July speech, prioritized economic growth and took a tentative step down that road, proposing an industrial strategy council that would assume a permanent place in economic governance.

The Wilson government’s growth strategy failed on a futile attempt to maintain an artificially high fixed international exchange rate for the pound. Comparable problems for a Starmer Premiership point to overly restrictive and self-imposed budget rules. Slowing growth and trade frictions directly attributable to Johnson’s hard Brexit should also be mitigated by a closer relationship with the European Union.

A second crucial strand, partly building on the first, is social policy, the achievements of the Blair governments in reducing child and pensioner poverty, early childhood development and investment in public services providing references. Sustainable social care provision remains elusive, sorely exposed during the pandemic and which, in combination with health, also calls for institutional imagination.

Such ambitions offer many potential hostages to fortune in a time of recurring economic disruption. But as early as the 1950s, Anthony Crosland emphasized that social democratic goals of a more just and equitable society should not be confused with dogmatic adherence to particular means. However, it is not only a question of values ​​but, as the current social conflicts underline, of the restitution of a balance of interests cumulatively dismantled since the 1980s.

The third and final piece of the political puzzle is constitutional reform, going beyond the piecemeal adjustments of the Blair years. The challenge is an inclusive and radically decentralized system of governance, in stark contrast to the “muscular unionism” characterizing Johnson’s Premiership. Much hope rests on a constitutional commission with which the former Labor Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is closely associated. He became a strong supporter of a Senate of Nations and Regions, to replace a House of Lords still degraded by Johnson’s use of patronage for crude partisan ends.

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Given Johnson’s serial misconduct in public service, political reform will also need to place more independent checks on abuses of executive power. All of this could burn political capital and overload the legislative agenda. Yet without constitutional and political overhaul, the British state will be fractured forever.

Michael Jacobs and Andrew Hindmoor of the University of Sheffield argue that historically Labor takes a redistributive approach strategy in relatively favorable and structural economic conditions reform when the economy is in crisis mode, as exemplified by the Attlee administration of 1945. Given today’s multiple economic, social, and political crises, elements of both approaches seem appropriate.

What a Starmer labor administration must not do is repeat the fanaticism of centralized control of Johnson’s Downing Street, nor the stifling micro-management typical of New Labour. Rather, it should adopt a ruthless strategy of funding its key priorities and the institutional architecture needed to achieve them. To win, Labor must spell out what those priorities are and piece them together into a compelling narrative fit for the Century Britain.

Events since the financial crash teach us that social movements such as the new Enough Is Enough campaign achieve limited results without there also being a simultaneous change of government. Without this change, the alternative is a new Conservative government that seems devoted to recriminatory Thatcherite “revivalism” and nostalgia for more distant glories.

Chris Painter is Emeritus Professor of Public Policy and Management and former Director of Social Sciences at Birmingham City University


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