Sir Keir Starmer had a good ten days. It had been a long time since we had been able to tell. Labor retained a key seat in the north; he pissed off the Prime Minister by pointing out that the “uncontrolled” removal of Covid restrictions risked devastation by a “Johnson Variant”; and his recognition that the regulatory divergence of Brexit required a border somewhere in Northern Ireland in contrast to that at Downing Street dishonesty and lies. The message is Boris Johnson is a clown and it’s no joke that he’s destroying the country.
Although true, this framing has not yet moved the polls, where the conservatives keep a healthy lead on the work. Despite his privileged life, Mr Johnson cultivates an outsider character. He hopes to persuade voters that he is not a politician whose campaign promises evaporate in power. Do Brexit, whatever the price, explains why many Labor voters in the North and Midlands seats show little remorse, so far, for lending their votes to Mr Johnson.
An election victory gave Mr Johnson the power to reshape the country. But Brexit is just a shock to have hit these shores. The other is the Covid-19. It’s too early to say definitively, but it looks like the UK is headed in the wrong direction. The activist and interventionist state to level the country has not materialized. The chances in people’s lives feel diminished. Control has not been returned but reduced, often where it mattered most.
The electoral coalitions of the two main parties are fragile. Mr Johnson struggles to cope with ‘red wall’ pressure for a growing state without alienating his party’s southern pro-business base. Sir Keir’s job is to convince socially conservative voters to return to Labor while retaining its metropolitan citadels. Settling scores long after an electoral defeat will not help. It does not tell voters what Labor stands for, or where the party would lead the country.
Sir Keir should seize the opportunity to anchor a greater role of the state in popular sentiment. Voters who switched from Labor in 2017 to Tories in 2019 are left on economic issues. Outside of Europe, Britain will need to use its fiscal firepower to align economic and social goals in the face of coming shocks.
Whether it’s post-Brexit trade disruptions, the long hangover of Covid, the sharp overhaul of energy production or an aging society, Britain faces a long decade of upheavals. City traders Urging government intervention indicates growing pressure for the state to shape the private sector in surprising ways.
The rebuilding of Britain cannot be done on the cheap. There is an opinion that the Labor Party should only offer modest spending plans for fear of scaring voters and failing to denounce stunts of cultural warfare designed to stir up animosity. If Sir Keir opts for a quiet life, Labor risks becoming light conservatives on the economy and light conservatives on its principles. It would be a mistake for him to think that voters simply want healthier versions of Conservative policies. Labor’s “Johnson-ism regime” would pale in comparison to reality.
Ultimately, it is its policies that will define Labor. Sir Keir urgently needs to clarify what his party is. He would go with his party grain if he leaned left on the economy. Labor cannot avoid committing to radical change in a radical way for reasonable reasons. Sir Keir should reset his policy and end internal factional struggles. A shadow cabinet that accepts Brexit without letting its voice be heard lacks credibility. There must be a work relationship with the left of the party. Sir Keir must prove that he is a bigger figure than his critics allow by uniting different groups in his electoral coalition around a common cause.