Lucky Starmer can reap rewards from the Tory leadership race

The writer is a political strategist and former adviser to Tony Blair and Julia Gillard

Labor leader Keir Starmer has that essential yet underrated political quality — luck. A year ago, when his leadership hung by a thread, he narrowly won the Batley and Spen by-election. At the end of last year when the partygate was seen by most observers as a “Westminster bubble” story, he decided on a full-blooded pursuit of the issue, leading ultimately to the parliamentary Conservative party’s overthrow of Boris Johnson last week. And ending a tumultuous week when politics focused on behavior that fell short of ethical standards, Starmer was cleared of any breach of Covid-19 rules by the Durham police.

The cruel iron of opposition means Starmer’s successful part in dethroning Johnson leaves little bandwidth for Labor this summer. Instead, politics will be dominated by the Tory leadership election. At a time when the UK faces multiple challenges — the cost of living, NHS waiting lists, and a housing crisis — the focus will be on the next prime minister, not Starmer’s policies.

But the next couple of months offer a critical opportunity to create the dividing lines on which the next election will be fought. Indeed, he started this process with his speech last week, promising that under Labor, “Britain will not go back into the EU. We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union.” This was absolutely necessary, and an example of Sir Lynton Crosby’s mantra of “getting the barnacles off the boat” — the removal of attention-distracting negatives before making the positive case. But it was also lucky timing for Starmer, since the debate on how to make Brexit work will be a prime battleground for Tory leadership contenders.

Now Starmer needs to make Labor’s position clear on the remaining questions which will frame the Tory race. Already the various leadership candidates — both declared and undeclared — are making clear that tax cuts will be central. Rachel Reeves’ mantra, that the UK is high tax, because it is “low growth”, puts Labor in a strong position. Labor must insist that we have reached the limits of the tax burden heaped on working people, either through national insurance or the usurious interest rates being charged for student debt. Second, that we must stop underfunding public services when the costs are visible everywhere — from the loss of teaching assistants in primary schools to the staff shortages in hospitals and backlogs in the courts. Third, that the answer is economic growth, not tax cuts funded by spending cuts.

Labor’s plan is for green growth — £28bn a year to be invested in “reindustrialising” the economy through decarbonisation. This would serve two purposes: Starmer and Reeves can campaign around the country asking how would Burnley, Mansfield or Shotts use this investment; and it will expose the Tory leadership candidates who suggest making a bonfire of existing UK climate change commitments.

The leadership contest will reawaken the perennial Tory dream of deregulation and letting the market rip. Once again, this is an opportunity for Labor to define itself. Against the fantasy of pushing up private sector housebuilding by slashing planning protections, Starmer should contrast a program to build a million council houses, similar to the postwar New Towns. Green homes generating blue collar work with a substantial proportion for shared ownership would democratise housing assets once more. Similarly, Labor shouldn’t be on the picket line; but it should instead advocate more rights for workers while Tory hopefuls conduct a Dutch auction on labor standards.

Finally, Starmer needs to take these ideas on tour. In just two years, he has done what took his predecessor Neil Kinnock eight — making Labor competitive and electable. Now he needs to seal the deal. The biggest way to connect to voters is to meet them, and remind them you’re on their side with policies that focus on the future. Keir Starmer has had a good week; now he needs to make it a good summer.

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