Amid the worst squeeze on living standards in decades, Keir Starmer’s Labour has a historic opportunity to transform this country – but yesterday’s speech shows he’s more concerned with staying in the establishment’s good books.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers a speech during the unveiling of plans for a ‘Mission-Led’ Labour government at Co-Op HQ on 23 February 2023 in Manchester, England. (Dominic Lipinski / Getty Images)

While it’s never wise to make predictions about elections this far in advance, it seems all but guaranteed that the Labour Party will win the next one. This has much less to do with any deep fondness felt by the public for Keir Starmer, and much more to do with the at first slow and then extraordinarily fast implosion of the Conservative Party.

Luckily for the UK’s capitalist class, the ‘grown ups’ are back in charge. Preventing someone like Jeremy Corbyn from coming to power in a situation like this was, of course, the primary aim of most of those who backed Starmer for Labour leader in the first place.

While plenty of anti-socialists did take issue with some of Corbyn’s proposed policies, many of those policies—from universal broadband to the four-day week—are now gaining in popularity. The issue with Corbyn wasn’t his policies per se, it was where these policies came from: an organised movement composed of ordinary people, rather than roundtables convened by the ruling class.

This insight appears to have been lost on Keir Starmer, who is so lacking in imagination that he appears to believe his only route to power is by adopting pretty much the same line that was taken by Gordon Brown and Ed Balls in 2008.

While the movement that underpinned Corbynism has been beaten back impressively, one of its lasting legacies was dramatically expanding public awareness of and sympathy for what were once seen as fairly radical policy proposals. And at a time of national crisis such as this, people are if anything even more willing to try something new.

Yet Starmer and his team seem to think that the public remains singularly committed to the idea that the government’s primary mandate is to ‘balance the books’. After years of austerity, followed by several years of the Conservative Party using government coffers like a piggy bank, the idea of yet more cuts is an anathema to most people.

Starmer and his chancellor Rachel Reeves have repeatedly refused to make any commitment on policy that is not ‘fully costed’, which always means funded through either cuts to public services or higher taxes on working people. Funding spending commitments through bond issuances, development banks or taxes on the wealthy and large corporations would take the new leader far too close to the 2019 manifesto for his liking.

This is the context in which Starmer has delivered an impressively bland and meaningless speech, detailing a list of ‘missions’ for a future Labour government. The missions include securing the highest rates of GDP growth in the G7, making the UK a clean energy superpower, improving the NHS, reforming the justice system, and raising education standards.

It would be easy to attack these proposals based on their vagueness, but Starmerites would be likely to respond that these are political campaigning tools rather than detailed proposals, which will come in the run up to the election. But even on these pretty meagre terms, the missions fall short.

One good test of the strength of a political slogan is how it sounds when you reverse the meaning. If it is effectively impossible to imagine anyone ever arguing for the reverse of your proposal, it’s meaningless and unlikely to resonate. You’re not going to see any politicians—regardless of their actual stance on the issue—arguing for ‘worsening the NHS’ or ‘reducing education standards’.

When it comes to substance, there are even deeper problems. The most important issues facing the UK right now are the cost of living crisis and the commensurate increase in poverty and inequality, the decay of our public services, the housing crisis, and climate breakdown.

Starmer has said nothing about how he plans to deal with the cost of living crisis, which is as much a crisis of incomes, which have stagnated in the UK for more than a decade now, as it is a crisis of rising prices.

Clearly, strengthening the labour movement and employment law, as well as taking measures to boost wages directly such as increasing public sector pay, are critical for making peoples’ lives bearable in the short to medium term. Further measures such as price controls on key goods like energy would be a further step forward.

He’s also said nothing on housing, which for much of Labour’s base is the singular most important issue in their lives right now.

Vague pledges on justice, the NHS and education will do nothing to ease the anxieties of those who work in, and those who depend on, these sectors.

The NHS has been severely stretched for nearly a decade and has been at breaking point for the last several years. Starmer’s vague promise to ‘improve’ the NHS will be utterly meaningless unless it comes with some new money. The same can be said of education and criminal justice. But promising this risks undermining his rigid approach to ‘fiscal responsibility’.

The fact that Starmer is even mentioning the term ‘clean energy’ is largely thanks to the campaigning undertaken by environmental activists and eco-socialists during and since the Corbyn years. The fact that Starmer has been largely silent as the government has moved to try to imprison many of these people tells you all you need to know about his real commitment to climate justice.

Whether or not the UK achieves the highest rate of growth in the G7 is, of course, largely down to chance. It is quite frankly bizarre that an opposition party would include such a specific GDP growth target given how many variables are outside its control.

Given his past form, however, Starmer is unlikely to see this as a problem. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that he is less worried about actually achieving any of these goals than he is with how the media will respond to his announcing them.

Regardless of what you think of these missions, you’d have to be extremely naïve to take them at face value. Anything that isn’t in Keir Starmer’s short-term interests will end up in the same policy graveyard as his ten pledges from the Labour leadership campaign.

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