Keir Starmer essay sets Labour on course for centre ground

Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Keir Starmer has set Labour on a decisive course toward the centre ground in a 35-page statement of intent that emphasises the values of hard work, contributing to society and partnership with the private sector.

Labour leftwingers are likely to see the 14,000 word document – entitled The Road Ahead – as marking a shift away from the Corbyn era’s radical spending promises, such as the large-scale nationalisations of the railways, water, Royal Mail and broadband providers.

In Starmer’s essay, that focus has been swept away and replaced by a declaration that, “the role of government is to be a partner to private enterprise, not stifle it.”

A Labour government would allow the public to “take back control” of their lives, Starmer wrote, making good on the promises made by Brexiters five years ago and building a “contribution society,” that rewards hard work.

In the pamphlet for the Fabian Society, designed to defy critics who have bemoaned his lack of ideology, Starmer pledges to “repair the public finances”.

Public sector reform is also earmarked as a priority, with a promise to use technology to help transform the provision of healthcare and bring down waiting lists.

However, Starmer also says a Labour government would draw on the spirit of togetherness sparked by the Covid pandemic to build a society in which families and communities are put before individuals.

A Labour source said that they believed the public were now willing to give Starmer a hearing, after spending his first year rebuilding trust in the party – but said the vision he set out had to be credible and responsible.

“People believe Keir could be prime minister. It’s the first time people have believed that about a Labour leader in a decade. Now it’s about showing them why he should be prime minister,” the source said.

The pamphlet includes a blunt message to his party, which he says has risked wallowing in “sepia-tinged nostalgia” in recent years, and become, “a party squabbling over its own past, rather than one focused on the future of the country”.

It comes amid a shock attempt by Starmer to re-write Labour leadership rules which has enraged the party’s left, with sources suggesting he will press ahead with plans even though they risk a humiliating defeat at conference without the support of key unions.

On Wednesday, union leaders attempted to put the brakes on the plans to return to the old electoral college system, urging Starmer to postpone plans for a vote at party conference – and hinting they would oppose them if he pressed ahead.

Starmer said he would consider union leaders’ call for a delay – but any retreat is likely to be viewed as an embarrassment before a party conference which has been billed as a make-or-break moment for his leadership.

During his first 18 months, the Labour leader has been beset with consistent complaints from within his own party that he has failed to make clear to the public what he stands for – a charge his team reject, pointing to the difficulty of gaining a hearing during a public health emergency.

In the essay, set to provide the backbone for his first party conference speech in front of a live audience, Starmer says a Labour government would hand back powers from Whitehall to local communities, tackle inequality, and ensure effort is rewarded with better jobs and opportunities.

“The desire of people across the country to have real power and control – expressed most forcibly in the Brexit vote – remains unmet,” he says. “The next Labour government must deliver sustainable growth, repair the public finances and give people the means to take back control.”

The Labour leader, who was at the forefront of efforts to persuade his party to back a second Brexit referendum, has largely avoided the topic of Brexit since becoming Labour leader, but in his essay he says his government would “fix the holes in the shoddy Brexit deal,” that have left businesses facing bureaucracy and red tape.

Starmer called for a “new settlement,” between businesses, government and the public that involves, “completely rethinking where power lies in our country – driving it out of the sclerotic and wasteful parts of a centralised system and into the hands of people and communities across the land”.

The pamphlet includes few concrete policies, but is peppered with hints of the party’s direction.

Starmer describes it as a “disgrace,” that class sizes have been allowed to reach their highest level in 20 years, for example. Tony Blair’s pledge card for the 1997 general election included a promise to cap class sizes at 30.

Highlighting the challenges facing children from low-income backgrounds, he says Labour would help provide the “soft skills” that allow private school pupils to emerge with “enviable self-confidence, self-worth and belief,”

That would mean ensuring that by the age of ten they have the opportunity to “play an instrument, join a competitive sports team, visit the seaside, the countryside, or the city, go to cultural institutions, ride a bike and learn how to debate their ideas.”

“From my days at university, through my legal career and as a politician, I’ve seen supremely talented, hard-working people from ordinary backgrounds held back, not just by material circumstances but by self-doubt or a sense they don’t quite ‘belong,’” he says.

As well as setting out his vision for the next Labour government, Starmer’s essay includes an extended attack on what he calls the “lost decade” of the 2010s, with successive Tory governments slashing public services, and then hiding their lack of an economic policy behind the promise of Brexit.

He also takes aim at the Conservatives for their “divisive” attempt to promulgate a culture war.

“The Conservatives have tried to exploit divisions, leading to an increasingly bizarre obsession with what happens on university campuses, a crime bill that offers statues of slavers more protection than women walking down the street, and McCarthyite accusations of Marxist plots against everyone from teachers to those protesting racism,” he says, pointing to the “tawdry” refusal of ministers to back Gareth Southgate’s England team in taking the knee.

Aides say he worked on it – and on his crucial party conference speech – striding the beaches of Devon on a family summer holiday.

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