30 September 2021
The Road Ahead
Starmer talks the talk.
By John Watson
Like his politics or not, he certainly writes elegantly. In his paper The Road Ahead published by the Fabian society, Sir Keir Starmer sets out his political philosophy. It is inclusive, it is decent and it positions him in the middle of the centre ground. No mad political theories here, no Marxist Leninism, no class war – just a sensible approach with which almost everyone in the mainstream of British politics would agree. The widening of opportunity, better education, the removal of destructive uncertainty, it is all there, much as it would be if the paper came from his political opponents.
That isn’t to say that Boris Johnson would have published a paper in identical form. It portrays the Tories as politically atrophied and their leader as not being sufficiently serious. It accuses them of favouring their friends and being slow to react to public need. But if you sweep the issues of competence to one side you would come to the conclusion that the two parties were not very far apart.
What the paper does not do is to explain how the improved society which it envisages is to be delivered. That is because, although it ends with ten principles which are to form the new covenant between The Labour and the British people, those principles are very anodyne indeed. For example, number 6 states that “The economy should work for citizens and communities. It is not good enough to just surrender to market forces.” Well, whoever thought it was? Even if, in its Thatcherite days, the Conservative party placed unreserved confidence in the market – and despite the legends I’m not sure it ever really did – that was long ago. The political consensus has moved back towards a far more controlled use of the market since then, something perhaps recognised by principle 7 which states: “The role of government is to be a partner to private enterprise, not stifle it.” It is really very difficult to think of any politician disagreeing with that.
That doesn’t make the paper valueless. It gives us a picture of Sir Keir as a man whose overall political objectives are not out of line with public opinion. What it doesn’t do, however, is set out a practical roadmap. And that is the real need because the Tories have been trying to meet the same objectives for some years now with success so limited that the general rule that each generation should be a bit better off than the one before it seems to be failing. There are more children reliant on food banks. The younger generation are more burdened by debt. Our reaction to public crises – whether relating to the supply of gas or the pandemic – is worryingly slow. No party would regard any of this as satisfactory and yet recent governments have failed to deal with it successfully. What are the causes? And would it be different under Labour?
There are a number of possible culprits. The first is dogma. Have the Tories put too much faith in market mechanisms and thus failed to carry through needed reforms? Well, here and there they probably have, but the worship of the market is yesterday’s religion and it is doubtful whether they see the interaction between the public and private sectors differently from anybody else.
What then about corruption? Could that be the reason that successive Tory governments have not realised the universal political objectives? The left-leaning press love this sort of reason, of course, preferably with a little bit about jobs for Old Etonians thrown in, but British politicians are not highly paid and the level of corruption seems pretty low. Politicians from all parties give the impression that they do it for the sake of the work and I suspect that that impression is a true one.
What could it be, then? Are the Tories stupider than they should be, too prone to be misled by the press? Perhaps that is so on the margins but some of them, Gove for example, seem to be distinctly bright. Would Labour be materially brighter? – probably not.
Are the Tories forced by their political philosophy to push too much of the burden too far down the economic ladder? There is certainly a point here and one would expect an incoming Labour Government to have a good look at the fairness of the tax and benefit system. No doubt there would be changes but the ability to tax is constrained by international comparators. Put it too high and the country will cease to be a competitive place to do business. Good though they may be for fairness, it is doubtful whether any changes would be sufficient to create a new society based on Sir Keir’s principles.
Anyone can talk the talk in politics but walking the walk by making changes which work is a more difficult thing altogether. The present government is currently regrouping with a view to achieving many of Sir Keir’s objectives. Perhaps it will fail. Perhaps it will succeed. More likely it will do a bit of each. What we cannot pick up from Sir Keir’s paper, however, is exactly what Labour would do differently if the implementation was down to them.
It is a course early days in Starmer’s leadership and it seems from his focus at conference on changing the party rules that he sees his first job as winning battles within Labour before he turns his fire on Tories. Perhaps The Road Ahead, with its emphasis on political approach, was written with that in mind and practical proposals for reforming the country will follow shortly. Let us hope so because, whether or not Labour achieves power, a well-argued agenda could move the political goalposts and add something useful to the way we go forward.
Cover page photo: Rwendland (Creative Commons)