By Sacha Ismail
Perhaps stung by criticisms about his lack of fight – and alarmed by stagnant poll ratings – Keir Starmer seems to be trying to indicate a change of tack, promising “a moral crusade now… to address the inequalities and injustices that this crisis has so brutally exposed”.
“The Tories… want to build back”, Starmer said in his widely reported speech. “I don’t want to go back… certainly not to an economy rooted in insecurity and inequality.”
“They’ve been slow at every stage. They’ve ignored advice. They haven’t learnt from their mistakes… Yet a government out of its depth is not even half the story… The terrible damage caused by the virus to health and prosperity has been made all the worse because the foundations of our society have been weakened over a decade.”
Starmer nodded to the important Marmot reports on inequality and public health.
You can read his full speech here.
This is, obviously, better than what Labour has said recently. However, among the many problems with Starmer’s speech, two are glaring and indicative of something fundamental.
Starmer said: “if we’re honest, for too long Labour has failed to realise that the only way to deliver social justice and equality is through a strong partnership with business”, then waxing lyrical about the wonder of “business”, ie capitalists.
Every Labour leader ever, including Jeremy Corbyn, has – unfortunately – advocated the labour movement cooperates and Labour governments cooperate with capital. But Starmer is pulling hard in that direction. He appears to have no conception of the reality that “business” is deeply implicated in the disaster of the last decades – as if capital and the Tory party are two completely unconnected things – and that addressing the problems he indicates will require at the very least some serious campaigning to pressure it.
In a surreal departure from reality, Starmer stated that “the vast majority of businesses… know the days of ignoring their social and climate responsibilities are long gone” and “are waiting for politicians to catch up”.
Employers and the rich, having increased their wealth at the majority’s expense for many years, have increased it again during the pandemic. If we are going to even seriously mitigate poverty and inequality we will need to take at least a significant chunk of that wealth. Obviously “business” will not want that. We will have to fight them.
Instead Starmer tries to evade the issue of wealth inequality and tackling the wealth and power of the rich by advocating “people” invest in “British Recovery Bonds”.
And while he praises capital, there is very little in Starmer’s speech about the labour movement.
It is good that he has supported the British Gas workers’ struggle against “fire and rehire”. We should demand that Labour routinely supports strikes, and that it commits to implementing its conference policy of repealing all anti-trade union laws. Which, again, “business” will not want!
Secondly: Starmer advocates very little in the way of concrete policies to constitute the shift he says he wants.
The difference between us and Starmer is not just or mainly that we are socialists and he is a social democrat. It is that we advocate radical demands for changing society, even far short of overthrowing capitalism, while he advocates very little.
The Marmot and other recent reports highlight the deep and deepening inequalities in British society (read a summary and some analysis here). The policies Marmot advocated to address them were inadequate, but went far further than what Starmer is hinting at.
On support in the pandemic, on jobs, wages and workers’ rights, housing, rebuilding public services, public ownership, climate and much more, radical policies are needed if we going to meaningfully “build back fairer” (let alone anything more than that). For some ideas, see the motion Southampton Momentum has submitted to Momentum to promote in CLPs for Labour Party conference.
We must insist that Labour Party policies should be decided by conference, not by Leader’s Officer or the PLP. Where did the “Recovery Bond” idea come from? Meanwhile reams of actually left-wing conference policies are ignored, including here.
To take two important example from the speech, it is noteworthy that Starmer talked in woolly terms about “affordable homes”, but ignored Labour policy on building council housing; and about “ensur[ing] care homes are places of dignity”, while ignoring policy for public ownership and provision of social care.
The left and labour movement should take the opportunity to challenge Starmer on what his supposedly new approach means in practice, and advocate policies and ideas which, unlike his, at least begin to measure up to the depth of the crises society faces.