Keir Starmer’s “Four Tests” | British Politics and Politics at LSE

The Labor Party is keen to show it is ready to form a government, but historical questions still hang over the Labor leadership. Christopher Kirkland identifies four crucial questions for the future of Keir Starmer and the party he leads.

Ahead of their annual conference in Liverpool, Labor will be supported by opinion polls. However, underlying these, Kier Starmer still has Liz Truss trails in voters’ responses to the question “Who would make the best prime minister?” Critics argue that he is indecisive, has abandoned promises made during the Labor leadership race and has failed to unite the party or has ignored key issues, in favor of the so-called “culture war”.

The conference provides a platform for Starmer to address some of these points. Although it also sets up potential pitfalls. Once these questions are answered, they will be, in the words of Neil Kinnock, “to be marinated in a striated dogma, a code” requiring those who hold them to “go through the years by sticking to [them, even if they become] outdated, misplaced, unrelated to real needs.“And it will likely be used to criticize Starmer if the situation changes before Election Day.

However, not doing so also poses risks. Perceived inaction at a time of national crisis would make Starmer and Labor appear weak. Labor’s return to power, after long periods of opposition, has historically been based on “big ideas” – Building a New Jerusalem (1945), The White Heat of Technology (1964), New Labor and sound economic management (1997) – having failed to offer anything resembling a paradigm shift who can both conceptualize and overcome the UK’s current economic problems would cede political advantage to the Conservatives and leave Labor on the back foot.

While Labor’s divisions are smaller than they have been historically, the conference season is a key test of a leader’s ability to rally the faithful. Labor Party conferences have often provided distinctive moments in the party’s history (e.g., the “Fight and fight and fight some more” speech in Scarborough in 1960, Callaghan’s renunciation of Keynesian economics in Blackpool in 1976 or Kinnock’s denunciation of the militant tendency at Bournemouth in 1985). A lot has changed since Starmer, in his first party speech at the conference (in person), described his principles as “Work, care, equality [and] Security.” and Labor will be keen to show they are ready to form a government.

Still, it is wrong to suggest that Starmer or his allies have a clean slate from which to operate. Traditional (or historic) issues still hang over the Labor leadership. Debates surrounding Starmer’s ideological positions, or the relationship between the party and the unions remain unresolved and have the potential to derail Labour’s opinion polls. These are debates that have not been resolved (but other issues such as the Party’s commitment to Parliament have been) since the interwar period.

My new book shows how the ideology of the Labor Party was forged in the midst of crises. In that vein, Starmer has something to lean on, such as COVID-19 and the sordidness associated with Johnson’s government, inflationary pressures and the cost of living crisis. The book highlights four main themes; The Labor definition of socialism, the role of the state in economic decision-making, the party’s understanding of inequality and its relationship to the labor movement. Voters will look to Starmer for clues about his responses, and those of the Labor Party under his leadership, to each of those responses.

What is socialism?

Other leaders explicitly stated what socialism meant to them, paying homage to the line of Labor’s 1945 manifesto, which asserted that “the labor party is a socialist party and proud of it”. Even Tony Blair, in 1994, explicitly stated his understanding of socialism in a Fabien pamphlet, and did not hesitate to use the term. Starmer has so far sought to avoid expounding his ideas using such terminology – his conference speech last year didn’t mention the word socialism – for fear either of alienating a large wing of the party or of being qualified in the same way as his predecessor. Failure to engage in such discourse risks alienating some of Labour’s traditional voters.

The role of the state in economic decision-making

Related to this is the power of the state in economic decision-making – can/should the state simply “correct” market failures? Does it have to provide certain services; if yes, which ones? And how should these be decided/arranged? Soaring energy prices have prompted calls for greater intervention in energy industries. Starmer has previously indicated that Labor may impose different tax rates on energy companies compared to those in other sectors, but amid rising prices, relevant questions remain about how much help the government could /should offer sectors such as housing (including rents), food, health (in the middle of record NHS waiting times)? Simply offering more is not an option; the last Labor government fell in 2010 following a crisis that the Conservatives have been able to define as one of the excessive public spending and would be quick to point out any promises not funded by Starmer or his team.

Inequality

One of the main tensions within the Labor Party is the distinction between equal outcome and equal opportunity. This ties in with the previous question about the extent to which the state should intervene in economic matters. Traditionally, Labor leaders have come from the right of the party and have been more comfortable defining equality in terms of equal opportunity. However, as the cost of living crisis continues into the winter and measures such as poverty (both in absolute and relative terms) increase, calls for greater state action to supporting those with lower wages/income will also increase. Moreover, engaging in such debates could help Labor distance itself from the Tories and in particular from the plans lift the cap on bankers’ bonuses.

Labor relations with the trade union movement

More visible, amid growing social unrest, is the issue of party-trade union relations. During Labour’s last period in opposition, a famous commentator described this as a “contentious alliance”, due to the often fractured relationship between the two groups, but also the scrutiny other parties have given the relationship. However, as others have pointed out, the controversy in the relationship stems not only from the events, but also myths and stories that are associated with such events.

Starmer’s decision to ordering the Labor front bench to attend picket lines over the summer was far from universally welcomed, and some prominent members even saw fit to defy the leader’s orders. Amid high inflation, Labor will come under pressure to offer support to workers facing pay cuts in real terms. As Callaghan discovered in 1978/9, in a battle between inflationary pressures and wage moderation, neutrality means favoring the latter. Failing to offer support to these groups over the winter as the cost of living crisis deepens will be based on the fact that these voters will always come to mark an X next to their Labor candidate. local (or that those who are discouraged from voting The labor force will be in short supply to cost the party seats in the next election).

As the next general election approaches, the date of which is to be set by the end of 2024, calls for Starmer to answer these questions will grow. As the country faces ongoing crises, the responses are becoming increasingly relevant. Yet Einstein’s famous phrase “In the midst of every crisis lies a great opportunity” will offer Starmer relief, for the Leader of the Opposition has no shortage of crises on which to base his vision. If he is able to answer the four questions listed above, he has the potential to situate his leadership within the broader framework of the Labor Party, unite the party and present himself as a Prime Minister-in-waiting.

Note: the above is based on the author’s book The economic ideology of work since 1900Bristol University Press (2022).

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Christopher Kirkland is a lecturer in politics at York St John’s University.

Photo by Jessica Taylor/British Parliamentunder a CC-BY-NC 2.0 Licence

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