New Year, New Keir?

By Elena Campbell 

On Tuesday 4th January 2022, the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, kicked off the new year in British politics by delivering a speech in Birmingham on ‘Labour’s vision for Britain’s future’. With Parliament returning from Christmas recess on Wednesday 5th January, the speech was a proactive attempt by Starmer to set out his vision and continue his quest to ensure the Labour Party is a credible alternative government before the next general election. The key elements of the speech were Labour’s new contract with the British people, emphasising Labour Party values and Labour’s policy plans for the future, albeit with a tone harking back to the party’s electoral golden years under (Sir) Tony Blair. While 2021 was the year of internal reorganisation for Labour, Starmer’s speech this week kicks off the mission of making 2022 the year Labour becomes electable.

Contract with the British people

Starmer introduced his contract with the British people which was a pledge for a good government that would earn the trust of the British people. The contract would be based on the three principals of security, prosperity, and respect. Starmer is planning on holding an event series to convince people to sign up to Labour’s plans for Government. The first clause, security, would mean that everyone has the basic right to feel safe in their own community including confidence in the NHS and job security. The second, prosperity, aims to ensure that every citizen has the skills needed to prosper in the UK. The third clause, respect, is to focus on ensuring that everyone was valued and lived within communities they believed in. 

Labour Party values

Starmer described the Labour Party as “deeply patriotic”, saying that socialism was rooted in the needs of British working people. He said the creation of NATO was underpinned by a patriotic Labour Government which gave it independent nuclear security. Starmer reflected that the three chapters of change of the Attlee, Wilson and Blair Governments made Britain a better country, adding the Labour Party would be the “fourth chapter of change” who would create a new Britain in the 21st century. He concluded that patriotism was a tradition the party embraced and a mission they inherited. 

Labour’s policy plans

Whilst trying to both support and oppose the government in 2021 as the country grappled with the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, Starmer’s apparent absence of policy ambition was often cited and somewhat criticised. His speech however revealed a flurry of policy announcements. Notable ones included a long-term plan for the NHS, addressing the shortfalls of sick pay for workers, called for a new industrial strategy, and pledged to invest £28 billion worth of capital to combat climate change and innovate for a clean future.

Labour as a national party

With patriotism a dominant theme in the speech, highlighted by 18 mentions of “British” throughout, the Labour leader was marking yet another departure of the Party from Corbyn who was often seen as being uncomfortable with the idea of patriotism itself. On the other hand, the idea of Starmer’s “contract” for the British people risks enhancing the image of Starmer as a stereotypical lawyer. In an attempt to quiet this view, Starmer stressed a contract meant a simple relationship between government and the governed, not a thousand clauses and appendices. This two-way deal echoes the “rights and responsibilities” agenda of Tony Blair where “work is rewarded; where success is prized, but also possible for all”.

With a departure from Corbyn but a look back to Blair, some might question whether Starmer is really looking to a new future for Britain, but a potentially surprising comparison would be the similarity between Starmer’s language and that of new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. This is most notable in the third clause of Starmer’s contract: respect. Scholz has been praised for his demonstration of respect for the ordinary workers of the country, whereas too often Labour in recent years was seen as looking down its metropolitan nose at those in Red Wall seats it was founded to help. The same seats that ironically contributed to the historic Conservative majority Starmer is now tasked with undoing. Moreover, this implicit approval of the new German Chancellor might suggest new ways that Starmer can position the UK as a collaborative partner with our most immediate neighbours. Such a move could help to generate better feeling in a post-Brexit context, where UK-EU relations have not yet reached the friend zone after a rocky end to the relationship.

How Starmer’s new policy agenda plays out and resonates with voters in 2022 remains to be seen, but one thing certain for Labour is it needs to look forward to winning back the Red Wall to help avoid the same catastrophe of 2019.

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