Keir Starmer’s conference speech in Brighton this week was his opportunity to lay out a bold and ambitious vision for Labour – post-pandemic, post-Brexit, and post-Corbyn. Given that Starmer has previously stated that we’re living through a moment akin to 1945, you could have been forgiven for expecting policy announcements as radical as the creation of the National Health Service. Instead, there was more tinkering around the edges of a fundamentally broken system.
Some elements of the speech were welcome, particularly when it came to climate breakdown. Starmer announced that Labour will “bring forward a Green New Deal” and commit to investing £28 billion per year in green infrastructure and research. This represents a real step forward for Starmer, and a decisive victory for campaigners like those at Labour for a Green New Deal, who worked extraordinarily hard to pass the Green New Deal motion at conference — even as Starmer and his allies tried to obstruct them.
There were some other bright spots: removing charitable status for private schools; committing to insulating millions of homes; and making sure that those requiring access to mental health services can get it in less than a month. But most of these were, in one way or another, in Labour’s 2019 manifesto.
There were also some much darker spots. As many people have pointed out, Keir Starmer made the party’s strength on law and order a key plank of the speech on the same day that the country discovered that Wayne Couzens showed Sarah Everard his police ID and placed her in handcuffs before murdering her. While the police would like us to believe that Couzens was just one bad apple, Everard’s murder speaks to a deep rot at the heart of our criminal justice system — and Keir Starmer refused even to identify the problem, let alone pose any real solutions.
Another worrying and less widely remarked-upon phrase was Starmer’s claim that the public finances “will need serious repair work” when Labour comes to power. Starmer could simply be referencing the need to grow the economy in order to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio — the only sustainable way to reduce public debt over the long term.
But it’s more likely, given Rachel Reeves’s statement that there is “no magic money tree,” that Starmer is indicating that Labour does not intend to oppose the Tories’ likely return to austerity after the pandemic. The last time Labour failed to oppose Tory austerity, the party was not only destroyed at the polls, it gave the Tories carte blanche to introduce an austerity agenda that led to at least 120,000 deaths.
What was perhaps most striking about the speech was the omissions. Starmer did not mention inequality once throughout his entire speech. Such a lacuna would be remarkable for a Labour leader even during an economic boom — but it’s utterly astonishing in the midst of a pandemic that has seen inequality skyrocket.
During the pandemic, the Bank of England’s asset-purchasing program has sent asset prices soaring, and the benefits of this increase have been skewed toward the wealthiest by a ratio of more than 500 to one. 20 percent of adults have been pushed deeper into debt, even as the government is planning on increasing taxes on working people while removing the £20 benefit uplift. Inequality is going to be one of the most significant political issues as we move into the post-pandemic era, and the leader of the Labour Party has absolutely nothing to say about it.
Starmer also failed to mention anything about taxation, public ownership, or social housing. Absent any reform to the tax system, inequality — particularly wealth inequality — will continue to increase after the pandemic. Unless Starmer brings utilities and transport into public ownership, any Green New Deal will simply line the pockets of unaccountable private executives. And without any action on social housing, wealthy older landlords will continue to get away with extracting wealth from the poor and the young.
Starmer was clearly trying to model himself on Tony Blair during the speech: At one point, he joked that he believed education to be so important that he was tempted to mention it three times.
The Labour leadership might be shocked to discover that the world has changed since the 1990s — not least as the result of a financial crisis worsened by the neoliberal economic policies pursued by previous Labour governments. But even Blair introduced a minimum wage, against the same cries we’re hearing today from economists claiming that doing so would increase unemployment (it didn’t). Even Blair mentioned inequality and had his own — albeit flawed — response to the challenge.
The Starmer we saw on stage at conference looked a lot more like Neil Kinnock than he did Tony Blair: a myopic and embattled leader who is far more focused on destroying his enemies than uniting the party behind a shared agenda. Admirers of Keir have made this comparison too. It might be worth reminding them that Kinnock lost.
Then again, maybe they don’t really care as long as they have their cartelized Labour Party back.