Sir Keir Starmer has had a good 10 days. It’s been a long time since that could be said. Labour retained a key northern seat; he unnerved the prime minister by pointing out that the “uncontrolled” removal of Covid restrictions risked devastation by a “Johnson variant”; and his recognition that Brexit’s regulatory divergence required a border somewhere in Northern Ireland contrasts with Downing Street’s dishonesty and lies. The message is that Boris Johnson is a clown and it’s no joke that he’s wrecking the country.
While true, this framing has yet to move the polls, where the Tories retain a healthy lead over Labour. Despite his privileged life, Mr Johnson cultivates an outsider persona. He hopes to persuade voters that he is not a politician whose campaign promises evaporate in office. Getting Brexit done, whatever the cost, explains why many Labour voters in the northern seats and the Midlands show little remorse, so far, in lending Mr Johnson their votes.
An electoral victory has given Mr Johnson the power to reshape the country. But Brexit is only one shock to have hit these shores. The other is Covid-19. It’s too soon to say definitively but it feels like the UK is heading in the wrong direction. The activist, interventionist state to level up the country has not materialised. People’s life chances feel diminished. Control has not been handed back but reduced, often where it mattered most.
Both main parties’ electoral coalitions are fragile. Mr Johnson struggles to accommodate “red wall” pressure for a growing state without alienating his party’s southern pro-business base. Sir Keir’s job is to convince socially conservative voters to return to Labour while holding on to its metropolitan citadels. Score-settling long after an election defeat won’t help. It does not tell voters what Labour stands for, or where the party would take the country.
Sir Keir should seize the chance to anchor a bigger role of the state in popular sentiment. Voters who switched from Labour in 2017 to the Conservatives in 2019 are leftwing on economic issues. Outside of Europe, Britain will need to use its fiscal firepower to align economic and social objectives in the face of the shocks ahead.
Whether it is post-Brexit trade disruption, Covid’s long hangover, net zero’s reshaping of energy production or an ageing society, Britain faces a long decade of dislocation. City traders urging government intervention points to pressure building for the state to shape the private sector from surprising quarters.
Reconstructing Britain cannot be done on the cheap. There is a view that Labour ought to offer only modest spending plans for fear of frightening off voters, and not speak out against culture war stunts designed to whip up animosity. If Sir Keir opts for a quiet life, Labour risks ending up being Conservative-lite on the economy and Conservative-lite on its principles. It would be a mistake for him to think voters just want healthier versions of Tory policies. Labour’s “diet Johnson-ism” would pale in comparison to the real thing.
Ultimately, it is its policies that will define Labour. Sir Keir urgently needs to clarify what his party is about. He would be going with the grain of his party if he tilts leftward on the economy. Labour cannot shirk away from being in the business of serious change in a radical way for sensible reasons. Sir Keir should reset his politics and end factional infighting. A shadow cabinet that accepts Brexit without prominent leave voices lacks credibility. There must be a working relationship with the party’s left. Sir Keir must prove himself a bigger figure than his critics allow by unifying different groups of his electoral coalition with a common cause.