President Starmer steps forward to what?

Dave Kellaway critically examines Labour leader Keir Starmer's presentation of his party's "6 first steps for government," comparing it to Tony Blair's approach in 1997 and arguing that while some steps are welcome, they fall short of the bold policies needed to address Britain's challenges comprehensively.

 

Even Tory supporters of mainstream media accepted that the Labour leadership’s presentation of its six first steps for government was a slick, well-organised operation. During the question-and-answer session, Starmer seemed more relaxed than usual as he delivered his characteristically ambiguous responses. Compared to Sunak’s bizarre, apocalyptic solo speech delivered from a podium just days before, Starmer’s event, with its theatre-in-the-round setup and overall messaging, appeared more polished and sounded more coherent.When most journalists wax positive like this you know the Tories are sunk.

Ministers responsible for the six areas of change spoke on several points. The presentation also featured videos of voters, including some former Tory supporters, who endorsed the Labour party’s plans. There was no new Tory defecting MP on hand but the next best thing was public support from a close friend of Cameron, Seb James, CEO of Boots. Yes he was sitting in the front row of the famous Bullingdon Club photo, to the left of Boris Johnson. To reinforce the Law and Order message Neil Basu, a former senior Met officer, also backed Labour at the event. The Labour party did not invite any trade union leaders to speak.

Keir Starmer's "My first steps for change" graphic.

Many people remember the famous Blair 5 pledge card from 1997, which many pundits at the time and since have considered an effective tool in the electoral triumph. The marketing team around Starmer must have debated changing from 5 to 6 since five is a more natural and snappier number. However, they needed to wedge in the new priority of ‘stopping the boats’, not by organising safe and legal routes but by some huge counter-terrorist-type operation. As the leadership team bases everything on focus groups and polls, the advisors obviously thought they could not let Sunak dominate the migrant boat issue. Indeed, one Labour source described the six steps as ‘consumer-based’ and a ‘retail offer’. The party seems to have erased the success of the 2017 Labour manifesto from its collective memory. Labour’s policies are clearly based entirely on the concerns of Tory voters. Our unfair and undemocratic electoral system, with its emphasis on marginal seats, partially encourages this. However, no one has attempted to mobilise those who abstain or to galvanise the traditional Labour base with policies that could change their lives.

One of the consequences of trying to solely occupy the so-called political centre, as Blair famously put it, to be the ‘political voice of the British people’, is that you can encourage disillusionment with politics; they are all the same; what is the point of voting? When asked if he was worried about the progressive Green or pro-Palestine voters Labour lost in the recent local elections, Starmer simply ignored the question and instead rambled on about winning the electorate’s trust. Labour strategists have factored in certain losses of this type, knowing that they happen mostly in seats with big Labour majorities anyway.

Since he has gotten so much stick about ditching all ten of the promises he made to the Labour members during his dishonest leadership campaign, and as a result of all his U-turns, Labour has been careful not to call these five policy demands, pledges, or promises. Instead, we have steps—the graphic layout on the card reflects this—which symbolises the whole very careful, cautious gradualism of its project. If there is growth and Labour respects its fiscal rules, these steps will supposedly serve as bridges to bigger things to come.

The Tories have responded predictably, claiming that Starmer’s numerous broken promises and U-turns make him untrustworthy. The Tory implosion, however, is so deep that whatever they say will have little impact.

Unlike Blair in 1997, these steps are not Labour’s steps but Starmer’s. Blair did not put himself on the pledge card next to his pledges. Starmer has entered full frontal presidential mode, looking very serious with his sleeves rolled up, ready to lead the British people to a brighter future. The headline reads ‘my steps’. The image aligns with how Starmer has rebuilt the Labour Party since the demise of Corbynism. He shuts down debate and criticism of the front bench. The party immediately strikes down free speech on supporting workers’ strikes or calling the massacre of Palestinian children genocide, in line with the verdict of the International Court of Justice. Starmer forbids front benchers from joining picket lines. MPs like Kate Osamor lose the whip. He has even managed to get the union leaders onside for the moment, giving the impression that he will not further dilute the labour law proposals. In this respect, Blair undoubtedly ran a more democratic party. Of course, at that time, the Labour establishment had not yet experienced their nightmare period of Corbynism.

The 97 pledges and today’s steps share broad similarities, focusing on the NHS, anti-social behaviour, education, and pro-capitalist, no tax rise ‘stability’. Starmer even echoes Blair’s exact phrase, ‘Inflation as low as possible’. However, some differences exist. Blair included more detailed figures and even promised work for young people. It’s worth noting that Blair implemented policies such as the minimum wage and Sure Start Children centres, even though they were not explicitly mentioned in the pledges. Similarly, Labour insists that they will adhere to their plans for significant, albeit somewhat diluted, changes in labour laws and housing.

The weakness of the Labour programme for government becomes clear when you realise that it does not adequately address the massive housing crisis, apart from the meaningless aspiration to keep mortgage rates as low as possible. Halting the right to buy council houses is a key way to start improving the supply of social housing. Andy Burnham, the Manchester regional mayor, has called for this halt (albeit a temporary one). However, Starmer has refused to comply with this or any other form of rent control.

Socialists don’t oppose a few of these steps. We need more teachers, and we welcome the addition of 6,500, but the UK has some of the largest class sizes in Europe, and there are around 30,000 schools. If you do the math, this equates to an extra teacher in every fifth school. Moreover, pay and conditions must improve significantly to ensure recruitment and retention. Will Iron Chancellor Reeves finance these increases? Considering these factors, this step forward is minimal.

The same applies to the proposal to increase the number of appointments by 40,000 a week. While we support this initiative, questions arise about whether the non-dom and increased money recovered from tax avoiders will suffice to finance this, let alone address the NHS’s needs. Tackling the mental health crisis alone requires a substantial increase in staff, which the Labour programme does not include.

Everyone opposes anti-social behaviour, but the proposed step emphasises increasing police numbers and penalties more than its vague call for a new network of youth hubs. Cuts to local council spending have devastated youth and community work, but Rachel Reeves has made it abundantly clear that she does not intend to restore local council services. This is where one step overpowers all others. Labour’s acceptance of ‘economic stability’ constrains all its programmes. If the capitalist markets or banks object, any Labour reforms will face suspension. The entire plan hinges on growth. British growth remains low, and most economists do not anticipate a dramatic change. Even the green energy project and other plans rely on an untested, hypothetical partnership with businesses that Labour believes it can convert into benefactors for many. Wealth taxes, public ownership of capitalist assets such as energy companies or utilities, and any other redistributive actions are not on the agenda. Only if there is capitalist growth will some minor redistribution be possible.

Momentum has issued this response to the 6 steps and we share their scepticism:

“Britain has big problems, and they require big solutions. Sadly, these fixes fall desperately short of the bold policies needed to fix the Tories’ broken Britain, from mass building council housing to re-nationalising our public services. Worse still, Starmer is failing to break with the Conservatives’ disastrous austerity dogma. Faced with similarly huge challenges in 1945, the post-war Labour Government brought sweeping change and investment to a country on its knees. Britain needs a real Labour alternative today, too.”

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The election campaign is underway. Millions of people will be a little more involved in politics. Socialists must seize the opportunity to intervene by doing everything in their power to ensure the Tories face a resounding defeat. At the same time, while supporting any progressive policies a new Labour government proposes, we need to first ensure there is no backtracking on those changes we support, such as the trade union labour laws. But then we need to build support among working people for more radical policies that can really deal with the crisis. Policies that will change the lives of many will require a challenge to capitalist power. Our task is to build a self-organised, broad left that can begin to do that. It will involve active support for those Labour candidates that wish to go beyond these ‘steps’ and discussion with campaigns involving credible, independent, radical candidates.


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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.

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