Uncharismatic politicians are gaining the ascendency. In America Joe Biden bumbles away in public and looks his age, and yet his record of achievement in difficult political conditions is remarkable. In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Sholz is hardly more impressive in public, and yet his awkward three-way coalition government looks solid and is managing stresses that could hardly have been imagined when it was formed. Meanwhile in France the charismatic Emmanuel Macron is not out, but he is down. In Britain the Leader of the Opposition, the dull Sir Keir Starmer, is looking getting stronger by the day.
Sir Keir has caused a lot of frustration among Labour supporters, along with anybody that wants to see the back of the Conservative government. He seems unable to spell out a compelling vision of what Labour stands for; as a speaker he is uninspiring. But Labour’s poll ratings are sky-high, and his own public approval ratings are higher than they have ever been. These ratings may not be decisively better than those for the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, (though one recent put them on that path) but the steady upward trend is what is remarkable. Usually politicians start by sparking high hopes, and then gradually disappointing. Sir Keir is achieving the opposite.
Partly this reflects the chaos stalking the Conservative party, to which Sir Keir’s colourless Labour party presents and appealing contrast. Boris Johnson had bags of charisma, but no grip. Liz Truss lacked charisma but did communicate a clear vision effectively – but people found it detached from reality, and she could not control her parliamentary party. Mr Sunak presents a favourable contrast to these two, but he struggles to reassure voters about the state of his party, and doubts grow.
But Sir Keir’s performance has been more assured of late too. He remains extremely cautious about putting clear policy proposals out into the public domain. Instead he and his team have put out two much vaguer themes in early 2023. These build on the theme developed in 2022 of placing a high priority on environmental sustainability, and the goal of “green growth”. The first of these was developed by Sir Keir himself: when he made an attempt to hijack the Brexit slogan of “Take Back Control” to promote the idea of greater devolution to the nations and regions of the UK. This is cheeky, not least because Britain has little tradition of devolved power, so the slogan is suggesting people take back what they never had in the first place. That is forgivable because the idea is the right one: decisions need to be taken closer to the people affected by them, and people need to have a greater sense of involvement in them. Whether Labour proposals will actually deliver much that is worthwhile is open to doubt. The party has a tradition of being highly centralised, and Sir Keir has batted away more radical ideas like electoral reform. It is hard to think that he will go down the road of a local income tax, for example. I’m unconvinced that anybody in the Westminster ecosystem really “gets” what would be involved in the sort of reform that would make more than a minor difference. Still, the verbiage is better than nothing. It is more worrying, if unsurprising, that Labour spokespeople have not tried developing the theme since Sir Keir flew the kite in the New Year.
The second idea to be developed this year comes from the party’s health spokesman, Wes Streeting. The NHS needs radical reform, he says, not “sticking plaster solutions”. Unlike the “take back control” idea, this one has been regularly repeated by Labour since. The idea seems to be that a reformed NHS can deliver better results without requiring an “open cheque book”, as sir Keir put it. At one level this looks like muddle and nonsense. Currently the NHS is suffering an emergency as it fails to cope with demand, following a decade of under-investment; this demands urgent solutions and not reforms that will take much longer to deliver benefits. The NHS badly needs sticking plaster right now, and lots of it. And radical reform has been tried before, and the results have almost always disappointed – most recently with the coalition government’s attempt in the early 2010s. To make a real difference, some kind of open chequebook will be needed, alongside sensible reforms – including to social care. Meanwhile Mr Streeting is vague about what reforms he has in mind – beyond tearing up the contract for general practitioners (GPs) – which came as a surprise to GPs. Still, politically these words make more sense. Labour does need say something about the NHS, and not just throwing money at it. Perhaps it is the inverse to 2010. Then the Conservatives promised that there would be no radical (“top-down”) reforms to the NHS, and then promptly broke their promise by embarking on a huge reform programme. Labour are probably promising radical reform but planning to deliver sticking plaster with spin.
Tactically this is all very shrewd. My feeling is that Labour will manage to consolidate their advantage over the Conservatives, which still has a certain fragility – polls show few people making a switch between the parties, and many more former Conservatives abstaining or supporting the Reform party of radical Brexiteers. It is the race of the tortoise and the hare. The hare lacks the attention span to win.
But there is a dark side to Sir Keir’s progress. In his campaign to party members to win the leadership, he promised to stay true to the party’s broad policy agenda, developed under his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. He has broken this promise. according to Stephen Bush, of the Financial Times and formerly of the New Statesman, this isn’t because he was deliberately misleading. He just didn’t understand the implications of his words, and found that when the time came he was unable to keep his promise. What he said was driven by the political exigencies of the time, without having been properly thought through. This is surely true of his emerging policy agenda now. Britain’s many problems can’t be fixed except with additional public spending, and this must be done when adverse demographics, among other things, mean that there will be little economic growth. Meanwhile Britain runs a substantial current account deficit. To my rather conventional mind, this means that there will have to be higher taxes, and the sort of taxes that will crimp domestic demand – income tax, VAT and National Insurance. Whether or not this is so in theory, Ms Truss has surely shown that it is true in practice – the government needs a degree of confidence from financial markets, which like to see a degree of prudence in public finance. Sir Keir will not say this, but once in power he will surely be faced with the need to raise taxes.
Two other areas worry people about Sir Keir’s caution. One is relations with the European Union. He avoids talking about Brexit, and has set his face against rejoining the Single Market or customs union. With the electorate slowly but surely coming to view Brexit was a serious mistake, surely he has the opportunity to be bolder, while forcing the Tories to defend a sticky wicket? Actually in this case I think Sir Keir’s judgement is sound. Re-integration with the EU brings with it awkward choices, surrendering sovereignty while acquiring little influence. Besides, the EU itself will be sceptical. And though the public may be regretting Brexit, they show little appetite to reopen the debate.
The second issue is electoral reform. Labour members support this, but Sir Keir is ducking and weaving, and is committing to nothing. This is disappointing because it is hard to see the British political system changing for the better without it. British politics has got itself stuck in an awkward groove, which in effect disenfranchises most voters, contributing to a huge sense of frustration. Of course countries with other electoral systems suffer problems too – but Britain’s are deep. Sir Keir’s caution is understandable though. I suspect many Tories think that Labour adopting electoral reform would be a gift to them. It gives them a chance to change the subject from their own record, and to awake the innate conservatism of the British electorate, with all sorts of lurid stories as to what the implications of reform are. Still, I don’t think it would work for them. Maybe Labour can promise electoral reform at a local level, as part of their “take back control” agenda. That would be a worthwhile step.
None of which takes away from Sir Keir Starmer’s relentless rise. It is a striking political achievement that deserves wider recognition.