As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss continue to expose and trash their own Conservative cabinet’s dreadful recent record, it is only natural for Labour members to have a spring in their step. Our sizeable poll leads and political direction under Keir Starmer is, after all, certainly a cause for renewed optimism.
Yet a reality check from, following the recent BBC television debate, shows that – despite Truss and Sunak tearing chunks out of each other – each still managed to convince just under half of surveyed viewers that they would make a good Prime Minister. Evidence, surely, that there can be no room for complacency between now and the next election.
The need for Keir Starmer to set out Labour’s economic offer to the country has been high on the priority list for those of us who feel our party can only ever win an election if we set out a bold policy offer, regardless of how far the Tories implode. This is why Starmer’s speech on last week – in which he made clear that economic growth was Labour’s central economic mission – may just end up being his defining moment as Labour leader.
While Truss and Sunak are setting out two competing versions of a conservative future for our country, Keir Starmer is now setting out – in real terms – the genuinely fresh vision and plan for our economy that Britain needs.
Sunak is effectively promising more of the same: low investment with limited help for families suffering from rising bills, a forecast of zero growth in 2023 and a decline in ‘real’ wages, all to “stay true to Conservative values”. Truss is promising the moon and the stars: £40bn of unfunded tax cuts with no plan to curb inflation, plus more fights with the EU and an attack on workers’ rights to prove that she is ‘true blue’.
Both are united by their desire for a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ economic model, centred on deregulation rather than public investment and on financial services and ‘shiny’ tech in the cities at the expense of levelling up the rest of the country.
Thank goodness, then, for the Labour leader. It may have taken 12 long years for Labour to get to this point, but our party finally has a successor to New Labour – one that rightly borrows from its strengths, but that also recognises just how much Britain and the world around it has changed since the 1990s.
The last Labour government was right to determine that growth is critical to a functioning, modern, progressive economy, but suffered from failing to truly break with Margaret Thatcher’s model of relying too heavily on financial services. Starmer’s own growth plan updates, rather than replicates, this model, making inclusive growth – or ‘levelling up’ – central to his plan. His pledge to use state investment to unlock private investment is set in contrast with the past 12 years of passive state, low-growth conservatism and will use net zero to drive green jobs.
But perhaps most crucially Starmer set out in no uncertain terms that “we need resilient supply chains in sectors which are vital for British security and growth”. Ahead of Labour’s 1997 election victory – post Cold War and when liberal democracy was the only show in town – this would hardly have been a conversation. But, because of the direction taken by Russia and China over the past ten years, the reality is that we now live an era of uncertainty where the liberal world order is under threat.
In the run up to pandemic, consecutive Conservative governments were utterly blind to Russia and China, who have had a field day in Britain. Russian money has flowed through London while the Tories dished out ‘golden visas’ to oligarchs and turned a blind eye to the source of their donors’ wealth. Meanwhile, Chinese-state-backed investment swallowed up large chunks of our critical national infrastructure – including Heathrow Airport, Thames Water and a third of Hinckley Point Nuclear Power Station – and by the time of the pandemic the world relied on China for everything from PPE to lateral flow tests. Our security services point out that this cannot continue. Resilience is not protectionism, it is realpolitik. We need a Britain that can stand more firmly on its own two feet.
All of this makes Labour’s make, buy and sell policy absolutely critical. We are not talking about winding the clock back to dated, heavy manufacturing – but forward to the green, high-tech manufacturing in which Britain can lead the world.
Our economy must be underpinned, of course, by modern versions of those timeless foundational industries that are so critical for our security, resilience and well-paid, meaningful jobs that you can raise a family on. For instance, Labour’s £3bn green steel deal will ensure carbon emissions are cut (rather than simply offshored), and that good jobs remain in Britain’s industrial areas.
Not only is this economic agenda our country needs, as shown by, these ideas also happen to be very popular with members of the electorate who Labour need to persuade. We simply do not have to choose between votes and values.
The challenge, however, will be around delivering the message. Last year at conference, Starmer gave an excellent speech, putting work and security at its heart. But by the New Year the core themes had been forgotten and then changed again, and by the time of the local elections Labour had three different slogans.
For Starmer to be Prime Minister there needs to be iron-clad discipline in getting Labour’s plan for growth into every single frontbench media interview and Prime Minister Questions session. Without this, Keir’s speech will be tomorrow’s fish and chip paper and we’ll all be wondering how the Tories have done it again it. Starmer’s plan for growth and resilience can win the next election – but only if championed religiously.