Starmer's words – and what they mean for Labour

Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA

Keir Starmer has written a 35-page pamphlet for the Fabian Society, setting out his vision for the future of both Labour and the UK. Based around broader ideas rather than specific policies, it nonetheless represents something of a break from recent years of Labour orthodoxy – and, arguably, from Starmer’s own position when he campaigned to become leader.

Here are some passages from the essay, and what they signify:

My vision for Britain is to make it the best place to do business because it has a government that works in partnership with the private sector … The role of government is to be a partner to private enterprise, not stifle it.

There is an extent to which this is fairly standard stuff for a mainstream centre-left party. But the tone is a notable contrast to the more statist approach under Jeremy Corbyn, not to mention to Starmer’s own earlier stance. His list of ten pledges when he sought the Labour leadership last year pledged “common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”, and a crackdown on corporate tax avoidance. None of this gets a mention in the pamphlet.

If we are to come back better than before we need to fundamentally rethink how our country works … It means banishing the culture that unthinkingly accepts public services not keeping up with the sort of advances we have come to expect in the private sector.

Again, the idea of reforming public services is not notably surprising as such. But openly contrasting the idea of a hidebound public sector with a more forward-thinking private realm could be seen by some as language only a few small leaps away from Dominic Cummings’s wish for a “hard rain” to revolutionise the civil service.

In order to put contribution and community at the centre of our efforts, we would build an effective partnership of state and private sector to prioritise the things that we have seen really matter: health, living conditions, working conditions and the environment. And together we would flesh out those things that are less immediately tangible but still vital – community, wellbeing, security and opportunity.

This paragraph is the centre of Starmer’s explanation of what he calls the “contribution society”, one allowing “the resources of the state and the innovative brilliance of the private sector to work together rather than against each other”, building on a post-Covid spirit of community. To some, this might sound a bit like “big society”, and Starmer half-notes this, while calling David Cameron’s idea “half-hearted and quickly abandoned”.

In the first 100 days of the next Labour government, I will sign into law a New Deal for Working People. It will provide security and opportunities for people across the country, with improved conditions, quality jobs, training and better pay.

The closest the pamphlet comes to a specific policy, albeit in generally broad terms. It would include raising the minimum wage and sick pay, and efforts to boost workers’ rights. No one from the Corbyn wing of the party would necessarily argue with this, but they might note a tonal change from his campaign pledge to “work shoulder to shoulder with trade unions to stand up for working people”.

We would also use the challenge of tackling emissions as an opportunity for British industry and jobs. We would start that with a huge investment in a green recovery from the pandemic. We would boost the car industry to ensure that Britain leads in the production of electric cars. We would get more offshore wind turbines built, powering our homes with clean energy.

Much of this sounds similar to shadow business secretary Ed Miliband’s repeated calls for the post-Covid economy to be rebuilt around a sustainable economy. But whether this amounts to a full commitment to the green new deal, as devised in the Corbyn period and endorsed by Starmer as a leadership candidate, remains to be seen.

We had moved from being the party of ‘white heat’ to the party of sepia-tinged nostalgia. We had become a party squabbling over its own past, rather than one focused on the future of the country.

Recounting his memories of a recent party conference, Starmer calls on the party to end its habit of devoting too much energy to internal wrangles. A critic might argue that by trying to rewrite the rules for choosing leaders, something opposed by a number of his MPs and some unions, Starmer is doing that himself.

When people across the world come together to say that black lives matter, when England footballers take the knee before the biggest games of their lives and when black people chant ‘we can’t breathe’, they aren’t asking for more nice words or inquiries – they are demanding real progress.

Starmer and his team have often sought to dodge culture war battles, to not be sucked into a media-led narrative which can seek to magnify emotive arguments. But this section shows the Labour leader does feel there is some mileage in associating himself with at least part of this.

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