A leaked release of a 12,000 word essay by Labour leader Keir Starmer has surfaced, forcing Fabians to release the full version. This essay, titled The Road Ahead, is designed to be a set of ideas to push forward after four consecutive general election losses and Labour still behind in the polls despite a relatively unpopular government. Much criticism of Starmer has surrounded lack of clarity of his vision for Britain and the policies that will achieve that.
To do this, I wanted to give as balanced of an analysis as possible, as with most things, there are positives and negatives. First off all, it appears we have a first direction when it comes to specific policies. This directly attempts to deal with one of the biting criticisms of Starmer and outlines a way into looking at what a Labour government would do. To begin with, Starmer outlines what we call the New Deal. This name obviously is in reference to the set of economic reforms set out by American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the essay, he lays out the foundations of what this would look like, stating:
It will provide security and opportunities for people across the country, with improved conditions, quality jobs, training and better pay. It will increase the minimum wage, ensuring proper wages that people can raise a family on. It will ensure rights for all workers from day one, such as sick pay, parental leave, and the right to flexible working, reflecting the realities of the post-Covid world. It would ban dubious practices such as fire and rehire and stop firms exploiting loopholes to get out of giving employment rights to their workers. We would give people stronger rights to be represented at work by their trade unions to help raise standards and protect workers. And, crucially, it would guarantee work or training for young people.
To give greater understanding of when this would happen, Starmer states that this would be within the first 100 days. This matches in essence an American style, as many Presidents’ first 100 days are critical with regard to legislative agenda, to what they prioritize, and what they will do.
The second policy outlined, though in nowhere as much detail is the Race Equality Act. The surrounding text states:
We would also act on tackling racism, drawing a line under the way important reports are allowed to pile up and gather dust in Whitehall. When people across the world come together to say that black lives matter, when England footballers take the knee before the biggest games of their lives and when black people chant ‘we can’t breathe’, they aren’t asking for more nice words or inquiries – they are demanding real progress. We would introduce a new Race Equality Act in the UK, aimed at tackling the complex structural racism that holds back people from every community.
The final note of policy, though this equally could give more detail is this on justice and women:
I have seen first-hand what we need to do on crime. That is why I’d bring in a new law aimed at ending street harassment, increasing sentences for rapists and stalkers, introducing whole life tariffs for anyone found guilty of the rape, abduction and murder of an individual, a review to increase sentences for domestic murder, as well as providing new statutory protection for domestic abuse survivors and real action to tackle misogyny
Though this is positive because it gives a clear understanding on the action of which Starmer will do, it doesn’t give complete clarity as “ending street harassment” is a difficult task, so its important to note what policy will be used, and the impact that will have.
Generally speaking, these are all good because it sets out a clear understanding of a policy direction that Starmer may be taking the party, and looking at how he plans to govern the country. It’s interesting that he plans to introduce the New Deal and not the Green New Deal, which is being pushed by the left of the party. His environmental policy is not clear as of yet, though he did dedicate a section to discussing climate change, and his belief the country should aim to be carbon neutral by 2030, however there is no set plan set out to do so.
One of my most biting criticisms of this, is in the way it is presented, as an almost academic essay. More than that, it’s 12,000 words long. In a day in which people are watching 10 second clips, this is not a way in which most people will be engaged, and for those who are not influenced by the impacts of modern day entertainment and technology, it is still much less accessible than a book. Any positives of this are simply lost as most people will not read it. Already John McDonnell has stated on Peston that “It looks like the Sermon on the Mount written by a focus group.” Starmer could be already losing the battle of it, before most people have read it, or even know it exists.
This also was used instead of a conference speech which is literally set to happen within the next couple of months, as the conference season is upon us. Usually this is a great time for leaders, for all colors and creeds to spell out their vision, their principles, their message to the party and the public. Think of Kinnock in 1985, where he took on Militant, but also laid out his foundation for his belief in the role of the state as a perfect example of an orator who was able to lay out his ideas in a way that was accessible, memorable, but also incredibly telling about the way in which he would lead the country. Though he was not successful on two occasions, there can be many lessons learned from Kinnock, as a person who came into leadership after a divisive time period between the left and the right of the party, and who came from their (at the time) worst results since 1935.
There is a clear understanding of the issues that face Britain today, but the issue is that there is no solution. Its void as it repeats the same points, principles and foundations that, for the most part, Labour has been spouting for years. There is a cry for substance, and any evidence that an essay this long is needed. It felt a long drag and I read waiting for the section on the future, as many of the things said in the past and present sections doesn’t tell me anything new about the road forward, it doesn’t add any new principle or any new policy that Starmer has in his mind that can solve these issues, and going into the future section, there is a lot of talk, of the issues facing Britain, and what he wants for Britain, but very way in which he thinks he can achieve that. It’s very easy for someone to set out words but without a clear understanding of how that can be achieved, it will only ever be words. This is so eloquently shown when he talks about giving more power to the people. He states:
It should go without saying that the best person to make decisions about what a community needs is someone who is part of and understands that community – but too often that does not happen. Britain today is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. Crucial decisions are too often made in offices in Westminster with little consideration of the lives they impact hundreds of miles away. That must change.
He fails to go on and dictate what change that may be. Is he advocating for a federal Britain, more mayors or more powers to councils? This is indicative of the vision statement, which goes great lengths about understanding the issues facing Britain, but fails to go into what he proposes to do about it. It comes down to this: is he an opposition leader, or a Prime Minister in waiting? To me, at present he’s an opposition leader, and until he can give a clear vision in terms of action and policy of what he plans to do, he will remain that way. After nearly 18 months, it appears words are not enough for the public to be swayed towards him.
The final negative is timing timing. Now yes this was leaked, but it was still meant to be released prior to the party conference. The other side thought of it being bad timing because of the future, is the recent past. There has been a controversy which has sparked the left to be incredibly hostile towards the leadership, as Starmer plans to change the leadership election system back to the electoral college system that had been introduced in the early 1980’s by the left faction of the party. Ironically, they are the ones who are now against it. But even still, with this infighting caused by this proposed change of policy for the Labour Party constitution, it will certainly make more people on the left more antagonistic towards this.
Though I have probably given a low light of the essay, there are some grey areas within it. Starmer does state that he wants closer governmental relations to private businesses. Its important to note, that this isn’t a negative because he does set out the aims of what he hopes to achieve:
My vision for Britain is to make it the best place to do business because it has a government that works in partnership with the private sector. Businesses would be expected to play by the rules, respect their workforce, and contribute to their communities. In return, a Labour government would provide a level playing field, a skilled workforce and a modern infrastructure, from transport to public services.
The reason for this being in a grey area is that the aspects of which he says the Labour government would give back are not understood of how these such things will be achieved. There is no policy on infrastructure, transport or any of it, and so it’s partly against words without any substance to them. However, it also sets out the type of person he is in regard to business, that he wants a positive relationship, and will set out an almost Blair-esque relationship – which may be enticing to many people and businesses who were in favor of that aspect.
What needs to change?
Setting out an agenda is always a positive thing, but the issues may damage the potential for this essay to attract many political thinkers. Steve Richards typically talks about successful political leaders and their ability to become political teachers, and I think this the true aim of this essay, is in essence to become that. To set out his personal ideology and change the narrative of the country in regard to Labour, himself and the set of principles that he attempts to spout. The issue is that, like most of the other times he’s attempted to speak about his ideology but has failed to bring up any policies that would back up the set of values he talks about. Therefore, this conference speech will be vital in ensuring his leadership is not challenged. There have been individuals that I’ve spoken to who support or are members who have stated that the conference speech will be make or break for him in regard to his leadership of the party.
Therefore, it’s incredibly important that the conference ends with more clarity on policy and vision for the country. This essay could be the backbone for this, much like The Orange Book was for Nick Clegg, the prominent difference being that Clegg did not write it. However, in many instances conference speeches are not policy announcements, unless there are specific policies being voted on. Perhaps this is the end goal of Starmer in terms of how he will present himself, but with other controversies and infighting going on at the forefront that could likely become the main news stories and takeaways from the conference. Either way, Starmer needs something to start setting out his plans and policies, to put greater pressure on Johnson as a Prime Minister in waiting, and not a leader of opposition.
This is something that for me is something quite expected of someone like him. He isn’t a politician, he’s a lawyer. He’s not someone who can be a great orator. You won’t see him give iconic speeches like Kinnock or Powell. He doesn’t have the charisma of Wilson or Blair. Instead he writes essays in an academic style in order to put his points across. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is quite reminiscent of a Ted Heath, who was very evidence-based in his debates and style but was trumped four out of five times by Wilson who was more personable and charismatic. Not to say Wilson was also very intelligent in his own right, but he understood how to play the game of politics, especially in regard to campaigning and usage of television, whereas Heath was more rooted in his belief that his policies and what he was saying would win in the end.
To an extent he was right, as he won in 1970, but in reality, if that were today, we wouldn’t have had a Prime Minister Heath, as nowadays, leaders of the opposition rarely hold on to fight two elections, and especially those with results such as Heath in 1966. The main difference between Heath and Starmer, though, is Heath was sure of his policies. Starmer is in a position here where something needs to change. The last leader of the opposition to become Prime Minister was David Cameron, and much like Starmer, he attempted to model himself after Blair. But within a year, Cameron had his “vote blue, go green” message; Starmer still has nothing to really show for his tenure.