Keir’s New Year speech – what he says, what it really means

Dave Kellaway asks what does Keir Starmer really mean when he says....


I want to celebrate the country we live in. It’s normally the job of the opposition to criticise and oppose. But it can make us sound pretty miserable. It can sound as if we don’t realise our own historical good fortune to have been born into a peaceful, creative liberal democracy.

keir starmer, new year speech, birmingham, 2022

If we are going to talk in broad historical terms let us at least be a bit more balanced. British historical good fortune often went alongside historical bad fortune for all the peoples and resources exploited during the British empire. Hundreds of years of Slavery promoted and supported by the British state provided a lot of the seed money for the industrial revolution that allowed material progress towards a ‘liberal democracy’. 

Repression of opposition to the British rule in these countries continued during Atlee’s government. Atlee is lauded alongside Wilson and warmonger Blair as the only three Labour leaders he thought deserved a mention in his speech. Like much of this speech he is shouting loud and clear to the media that he is not Corbyn, who, to a degree, challenged this historically dishonest bipartisan view of British history.

Think of all that the British have to be proud of. The rule of law. Her Majesty the Queen

keir starmer, new year speech, birmingham, 2022

Did he use this speech to attack the latest anti-democratic laws going through parliament on policing and migrants, the ones which make the rule of law more limited and repressive? Not at all. Instead, he talks about his government legislating on workers’ rights, being careful not to say he will dump all the anti-union labour laws brought in by Thatcher. The minimum wage is not mentioned, which shouldn’t be surprising since he opposed the £15 passed by his own conference.

Sir Keir, as a loyal knight, must also display total subjection to our beloved Queen, who expresses the backwardness and gross inequality of our political institutions and society.

The class and racist bias of the rule of law was exposed by the response of the state and its police to the Hillsborough football disaster (see the current TV drama, Anne) and the Stephen Lawrence murder. Of course, there was always one rule of law for the British and another for the Irish, African or Asian peoples living under the British Empire. Sir Keir, as a loyal knight, must also display total subjection to our beloved Queen, who expresses the backwardness and gross inequality of our political institutions and society. After the speech, he replied to a question about Tony Blair’s elevation to the Order of the Garter by giving his total support.

One of the best characteristics of the British people is that we are fair-minded. Our instinct, in a national crisis is to give the government the benefit of the doubt. And because the pandemic posed an unprecedented problem we, Her Majesty’s opposition, did the same.

keir starmer, new year speech, birmingham, 2022

The leader of what is supposed to be an opposition justified his feeble calling to account of Johnson’s disastrous management of the pandemic by invoking some timeless stereotype of British fairmindedness. The whole speech is littered with this deeply ideological referencing of British ‘characteristics’ and what the ‘people’ are supposed to want. Even those in the party who support Starmer believe he has let Johnson off the hook over his callous disregard of public health. It just is not true that the pandemic was so unprecedented that you could not have listened to the large number of specialists who were advocating a different approach. By the time Covid hit these shores the lessons of the disastrous early response of the Italian government was clear for all to see. There was a precedent on our doorstep.

Today I want to introduce my Contract with the British people. I am well aware that just because the Tories lose it  (trust) doesn’t mean Labour simply inherits it.(…) It will be a contract based on three simple principles: Security. Prosperity. Respect.

keir starmer, new year speech, birmingham, 2022

Labour opposition is not based on any attempt to mobilise the labour movement and its allies as Corbyn tentatively tried to do with mass campaigning and his line of the ‘many not the few’. No, it is now the great leader proposing a one on one contract between himself and the great British people.

Starmer’s efforts are not helped by continually reminding everyone that his party is not to be trusted. All this talk of losing trust conveniently forgets the clear evidence of trust shown by the voters in the 2017 Corbyn led election. A result that was based on a radical programme very much opposed by the current leader. If you keep going on and on about losing people’s trust, the electorate may start to believe you are untrustworthy, making it all the more difficult to regain it.

What is the slogan Starmer puts forward in this speech to enthuse and mobilise the masses to elect a Labour government?

Security, Prosperity and Respect. 

Here we are in the focus group world of bland words that nobody can really disagree with. Who is for insecurity, poverty or contempt? Even Corbyn’s for the ‘many not the few’ did implicitly point to an idea of classes, power and the need for the many to mobilise to win some power from the few. Every Tory, Liberal Democrat or far-right voter would sign up to Starmer’s platitudes. Big business, the Tory party and the Tory press certainly did not see Corbyn’s slogan as a platitude, they knew it contained a real risk to their power and wealth.

When he comes to giving some vague detail on what security means he refers to job security. Even then we are only given this right ‘if we work hard’. Why is job security not an automatic right for Labour? Some countries even put such a right in their constitutions without any condition. It is a bit like using the term ‘hard-working people or families’ when discussing any social policy. Labour is terrified of being seen as being softer than the Tories on such matters. Why didn’t he just say clearly that Labour would end all zero-hours contracts and other precarious working conditions? Why not say openly he would strengthen trade unions ability to defend working people?

Prosperity is phrased exclusively in an equal opportunities/improved skills and education framework. If everyone has better opportunities but the basic unequal system remains the same under the control of the same capitalist exploiters how will anything change? Increased access to university education has not changed the jobs market, it just means there are more people doing jobs they are unqualified for.

Respect is even more nebulous as an idea. We all need to be taken a bit more seriously and valued for ‘who we are and what we do’. This is the same as the tosh that Human resources departments churn out every day. If the boss is a bit nicer to you and talks about teamwork you are supposed to feel better and forget that it does not change the hierarchy, the unequal salaries and the fact that you can be sacked very easily. Working people’s power and confidence in taking control of society are key not whether other people like their bosses respect them.

Just so his audience has not already got it Starmer devotes even more of his speech to ‘Labour being a deeply patriotic party’. This is where he is undoubtedly telling the truth. From supporting the First World War genocide against working people to Atlee’s continued management of the colonies to Blair’s tub-thumping about Britain’s liberating role in Iraq, Labour has always been patriotic.

From supporting the First World War genocide against working people to Atlee’s continued management of the colonies to Blair’s tub-thumping about Britain’s liberating role in Iraq, Labour has always been patriotic.

Corbyn’s reluctance to engage quite so enthusiastically with all that flag-waving interrupted this narrative. It is unclear how important the public perception of Corbyn as unpatriotic was in the 2019 defeat. However, it is seen as crucial by the current leadership to reassure the establishment that it has totally rejoined the bipartisan approach to all things deemed patriotic – such as alignment with US foreign policy. Indeed Starmer name-checks NATO and applauds the independent nuclear deterrent.

New Police Hubs will be visible in every community. We will introduce a tough new approach to closing down drug dens with new powers for local police and local authorities.

keir starmer, new year speech, birmingham, 2022

After the speech ended a journalist asked Sir Keir if he supported Sadiq Khan’s London project around de facto decriminalising of Class B drugs like marijuana. Despite this being just a limited progressive experiment it was immediately slapped down. No way Labour was soft on drugs, this leader was focussing on drug dens and more police – that is how he thinks we should deal with the drugs issue. History shows it is a policy that has never really worked. Neither was there a world on any possible reforms aimed at improving police work with regard to women or BAME people. Starmer dismissed the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This country needs an industrial strategy to improve our productivity to ensure we Buy, Make and Sell more in Britain.

keir starmer, new year speech, birmingham, 2022

Starmer likes to portray himself as a moderniser but his rhetoric about buying British is just reheating the same verbiage as Wilson did with his campaigns in the 60s and 70s. Who continues to decide what is made and sold? There is no challenge at all to the bosses who control the economic process. Not even a policy of making it harder for companies to move their factories overseas and sack their workers. Italian unions are campaigning around that demand. How is a British boss better than a French or Indian one anyway?

Key sectors of the capitalist class today are more interested in short term profits and financial speculation than improving productivity. What about the minimum wage of 15 pounds supported by conference and rejected by Starmer.

If a British company says we cannot afford to pay the minimum wage, does Labour support the bosses or the workers?

The speech did include a few proposals we can get behind such as the green industrial reconversion projects in Hull or Birmingham. Nobody would oppose the £28 billion proposal for capital investment for climate change. However, this is small beer compared to the money already spent and often wasted on the Covid programme. Capital investment can also mean big handouts to companies. Rather than finance paid directly to families or workers to encourage ecological transition at a neighbourhood level. 

One key arena in the battle for a green transition is the energy sector. Asked after his speech if he still stood by his pledge to nationalise them Starmer did his usual sidestep saying that new forms of ownership did not necessarily mean nationalisation. Anyone can see that managing the transition is much easier if water, gas and electricity are viewed as common goods to be run in the interests of the community and the planet rather than private profit.

Throwing out figures about helping to create 100,000 new startups is both vague and again relies on the private sector to be the motor of growth and green transition. Like Wilson or Blair before him, there is a naive faith in technology as the magic wand waving in prosperity for working people. There was little evidence that it worked then, remember the Wilson era closed with cuts to wages and services and Blair created greater inequality while slightly reducing absolute poverty.

On the question of Scotland and Wales, Starmer demonstrated he is still behind the curve. Counterposing a new commission on the Future of the UK to be headed up by Gordon Brown, to any support for the Scottish people to have the right to a referendum. His criticism of Johnson’s getting Brexit done, does at least raise an issue he has effectively abandoned, but once again there is a vague commitment to new alliances with Europe. But these alliances would go alongside ‘ensuring our borders remain safe and secure’. No way this Labour leader is going soft on letting too many migrants or asylum seekers enter the country. In fact, coming just a few months after dozens have died in the channel, migrants do not even merit a mention in his 8-page speech.

Starmer ends in a paean of praise for how great Britain is. Johnson himself uses the same rhetoric when he talks about our great scientists dealing with the pandemic, our great universities, the BBC as the greatest broadcaster in the world or our world-beating culture. The Labour leader says his party is not a nationalist party but a national party. If you were an Italian or French worker this sounds very nationalist and dishonest because there is no evidence that British scientists, universities or culture is superior to anything in their countries. Internationalism is not really on the agenda of this leadership.

We do not need to use all those nasty terms like class or the ‘few’ which just might be a bit of a problem if you really want to change this society.

Labour will guide us to a glorious future with the unity of this great country. Okay, we will talk about a few flaws, although there is not a lot about them in this speech, we really are in all this together. Common bonds, the football stadium, the local shops and the places of worship bind us all together. We do not need to use all those nasty terms like class or the ‘few’ which just might be a bit of a problem if you really want to change this society.

Art Book Review Books Capitalism China Climate Emergency Conservative Government Conservative Party COVID-19 Creeping Fascism Economics EcoSocialism Elections Europe Event Video Fascism Film Film Review France Gaza Global Police State History Imperialism Israel Italy Keir Starmer Labour Party London Long Read Marxism Marxist Theory Migrants NATO Palestine pandemic Police Protest Russia Solidarity Statement Trade Unionism Trans*Mission Ukraine United States of America War

Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

Join the discussion