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“I also promise this: a politics that treads a little lighter on all of our lives.” So declared Keir Starmer in his first political foray of what we know will be an election year. After the enervating, angry, confrontational politics of recent times and the inescapably interventionist policies of the pandemic, a government that intrudes a little less is a tantalising prospect. Shame then that this is a promise he is unlikely to keep.
For one thing, it is not in a government’s gift. Anger is the energy of oppositions and, having seen how the populist right treats a Tory government, few can doubt the rage that will be deployed against a Labour party with the audacity to take power. Something similar was offered by Joe Biden and yet the temperature of US politics seems no lower. Populists will also argue that the quiet Starmer seeks is actually an acquiescence to a liberal consensus.
Government may try to speak a little more quietly but the howls of betrayal from the disempowered right (and marginalised left) will not fade. The populist campaigning style, the constant and intemperate demand for voters’ attention, is now a feature of politics.
But there is a more fundamental reason to doubt Starmer’s ambition. It is not the party’s mission. Labour is unapologetically interventionist. It believes in the power of the state to do good. You do not join the party to tread lightly on people’s lives. You join to put your finger on the scales of society. The one thing we can be sure a Labour government will not do is step softly.
Starmer almost admitted as much in the same speech. While he hopes to replace the rage with calmer governance, he added that this gentler politics is also “more demanding” as people are asked to compromise for national unity. The politics Starmer seeks is, then, no less intrusive. The country is simply asked to be a good sport about it.
The message also captures the central tension of Starmer’s Labour party. Starmer’s appeal to voters must be a combination of hope and reassurance. A country aching for change wants reasons for hope. But Starmer’s strategists understand that a more pressing mission is to persuade voters they need not fear too great a leftward lurch. Unlike activists, voters do not seek more radical red meat. Hence the proffered balm of a less confrontational politics.
Many Labour sympathisers voice their frustration at Starmer’s failure to embrace a more fervent rhetoric of hope and more dramatic policy positions. At a time of high tax and tight public finances the Labour leader rightly prefers to play down expectations, offering qualified “credible” hope. Yes, change will come but it will not be overnight. Voters are asked to trust that in power Labour will be able to offer more clarity.
Yet for all the talk of Labour caution, if one looks at the party’s stated agenda it is clear that voters can expect a significantly more radical, busy and interventionist government than Starmer’s tranquillising tone might suggest. His will be a very active administration.
From the ambitions for wraparound nursery care in schools and the legislation to offer more rights for workers to the pledge to streamline planning laws — a move that can only mean treading on the toes of local residents to secure more housebuilding — people will feel the footsteps of government.
We are promised substantial reform for the NHS, as yet unspecified action to address the failings of social care and a pledge to intervene on causes of ill-health such as obesity. Schools face another review of their curriculum. Peter Kyle, the shadow science secretary is working up an agenda to bring artificial intelligence and transformational technology into public services. Labour may not speak loudly about redistribution but it remains an article of faith. Today electoral discipline is holding Labour MPs in line, but in office the demands for higher spending and “fairer” taxes will resume.
Starmer promises more decentralisation of power, but politics does not become more light-footed simply because it comes from local councils. The much decried 20mph speed limits imposed across swaths of Wales or the anti-pollution Ulez charge of the London mayor have their defenders, but they are not examples of politics getting off people’s backs.
In the face of Tory attacks about a “borrowing bombshell”, Labour may be watering down its promised £28bn a year green programme — including about £10bn of existing Conservative commitments and making it contingent on the state of public finances — but the ambition remains one of state-led investment and mass household insulation. The green agenda is also a mechanism for a more active industrial policy.
This is not to decry these policies, some of which are overdue and many of which will be welcomed. A core part of Labour’s appeal is that the state has been hollowed out under the Conservatives and any victory will be at least partly built on a desire to see better functioning public services. Those who vote Labour may well be seeking just such purpose from their government.
The point simply is that one should not be rocked to sleep by soothing rhetoric or a lack of detail. No one should doubt Starmer’s intention to lead a transformational government, or the radicalism that may emerge after it takes office and feels freer to follow its initial instincts rather than those forced on it by electoral calculation. One may approve or disapprove of his agenda, but we can be sure that while a Starmer government may speak softly, it will not step lightly.
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