Today’s big question

Keir Starmer lays out his vision for Labour - but will it work?

Opposition leader calls for ‘biggest economic shake-up since WWII’

The hardest job in politics is widely agreed not to be that of prime minister, who holds all of the cards, but rather leader of the opposition, who constantly has to reshuffle the deck in a bid to trip up the government.

That lesson is now being learned by Keir Starmer. After riding a wave of positive polling since becoming Labour leader, he has recently faced criticisms from party members and MPs who fear that Starmer’s moderate politics risk turning him into a “continuity Ed Miliband”

The embattled party boss has struck back, however, by delivering a speech today in which he savaged ten years of Conservative government - and sought to outline his vision for a viable alternative.   

Defining ‘Starmerism’

Before Starmer had uttered a word of his 30-minute speech, pundits were already questioning the scale of his ambition to make Labour a government-in-waiting. In this morning’s splash in The Independent, deputy political editor Rob Merrick described the “call to arms” as a “pitch to reinvigorate the Labour leadership after attacks within the party”. 

That claim was played down by Labour officials who told Politico’s London Playbook that the speech had been six months in the making - “the implication being that it definitely isn’t a response to recent commentariat criticism of his leadership”, says the site.

Either way, the speech certainly wasn’t lacking in scale. Speaking from Labour’s headquarters in central London, Starmer said that “this must now be a moment to think again about the country that we want to be”.

As Britain reels from the impact of Covid-19, he continued, Labour is making “a call to arms like the Beveridge Report”, which paved the way for the founding of the welfare state and the NHS in the wake of the Second World War.

By contrast, the “terrible damage caused by the virus to health and prosperity has been made all the worse because the foundations of our society have been weakened over a decade” under Tory rule, leaving Britain “unprepared when we were tested most”.

The result is “the worst death toll in Europe and the worst economic crisis of any major economy” during the pandemic, he said.

Starmer is calling for the creation of a new savings scheme to let people to “have a stake in our national recovery”.

As the BBC explains, the British Recovery Bond plan “would offer people a savings account with the government at a competitive interest rate”, and the cash raised “would then be spent on rebuilding the country post-Covid”.

Starmer also pledged that a Labour government would offer “start-up loans for 100,000 new small firms, especially in areas outside the Southeast”.

And he reiterated his party’s call for the weekly £20 increase to universal credit benefits to run beyond the scheduled end date on 31 March.

In addition, a Labour budget would extend business rate relief and the VAT cut for hospitality and leisure, Starmer said, as well as “extending and updating the furlough scheme so it’s better able to help people back into work”.

A Labour official told Politico that the party leader was setting out what he believes to be the “political and economic dividing line” for Rishi Sunak’s March budget and the next ten years of politics. 

And Starmer hammered home this theme, saying the country is at a “fork in the road” where it can either rebuild the “insecure and unequal economy that has been so cruelly exposed by the virus” or “seize this moment and go forward to a future that is going to look utterly unlike the past”.

Sunak’s spending review is “a chance to diagnose the condition of Britain and to start the process of putting it right”, he continued, adding that the government is “incapable of seizing this moment” and that “Labour would choose a different path”.

So will it cut through?

Starmer’s approval ratings have slipped in recent months, and latest YouGov voting intention polls show Labour trailing the Conservatives by five points.

As the UK’s Covid vaccination campaign steams ahead, Labour and Conservative strategists are beginning to whisper about a “Boris bounce” ahead of May’s local elections - which will be the first big test of Starmer’s popularity with voters.

Against this backdrop, Starmer’s speech today needed “to be something to rival [former PM Clement] Attlee in 1945”, an unnamed Labour MP told Politico.

But few ideas are “as big as the creation of the welfare state”, the MP added.

Many pundits believe the challenge posed proved too much for Starmer. Delivering his verdict on the speech, The Sun’s political editor Harry Cole tweeted: “I would humbly suggest that may have been a little bit over hyped.”

BBC Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall was slightly more forgiving, tweeting that “this was the first time I’ve seen a real attempt made by Labour to tell an alternative story about the pandemic”. Starmer is never going to be “the best orator”, but “this was about setting up dividing lines and conceptual framework to view the pandemic”, Goodall argues.

Starmer set out a “bold offer which performs one of Labour’s favourite tricks” of appealing the party’s role in rebuilding the country after the Second World War, writes former Labour MP Tom Harris in The Telegraph.

But “the fundamental challenge that Labour leaders always face when evoking the spirit of 1945 is that even faced with the outrageous damage inflicted upon us by the pandemic, comparisons with war-torn Britain are absurd,” he adds. “And no one outside the Labour Party’s own metropolitan bubble is buying it.”

BBC political correspondent Helen Catt agrees that the idea behind the speech “was to take voters out of the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic and remind them of the party politics of before”. 

But even if that aim were achieved, the British Recovery Bond plan and other new proposals are “unlikely to pacify those who would like to see Labour being more radical”, she concludes.

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