Thursday 5 January 2023

Keir Starmer's Taking Back Control Wheeze

How do you sell a pretty wonky set of proposals to a sceptical press and catch some passing public interest? By half-inching the most notorious, for some, political slogan of recent years and slapping it on your programme of constitutional reform. It was a pretty shameless move by Keir Starmer, but by no means the first he's executed since becoming Labour leader.

Compared with the slim offerings doled out by Rishi Sunak, Starmer's was a more weighty speech with sets of commitments linked to aspirations. Or, because of his addiction to management-speak, "missions". He again reiterated the package he unveiled before Christmas with Gordon Brown, and so there was nothing new on show. His main target was the Westminster system and the short-termism it fosters, and this is exacerbated by the overly centralised character of the state. With so much power concentrated in the executive only certain issues get the attention they deserve, which means when something comes along like a pandemic or yet another NHS Winter crisis, government goes straight into reactive mode - what Starmer calls sticking plaster politics. This approach leads to uncertainty and expensive, last-minute fixes. To meet the challenges besetting the country, a new approach is needed - which is where the 'Taking Back Control' Bill will make a difference.

For seasoned Starmer watchers, framing Britain's problems as technical problems would come as no surprise. His approach to politics, even to his own party, is informed by being the head honcho of a large organisation where employees had to snap to attention. This has led to some howlers, such as getting restructuring specialists in to tell him how to win elections, or attempting to sack Angela Rayner as Deputy Leader. His project, and part of the aim of this speech, is to make Britain a land fit for managers. This is modernisation.

Overall, Andrew Fisher's critique of Starmer's speech is right. The main aim was to send messages to elite opinion formers, and if you think the path to Downing Street runs through fiscally tight Tory voters the headlines generated, that there won't be big spending under an incoming Labour government, is a win. But at the same time, it doesn't matter how ostensibly decentralising and empowering "taking back control" is, if the money isn't there for pay - studiously side-stepped - then public services are ony going to rot further. But the other thing Starmer chose to mention, in ways that would please Blairite fossils, is the close relationship between government and business he wants to build. A new round of public-private "partnerships"? Perhaps. The indicators are there that Starmer favours some sort of tripartite structure similar to continental corporatism and the many abortive attempts to fix one here during the postwar period, but why keep banging on about partnerships with business? Is it just about telling the media that capitalist realism isn't going anywhere under his government?

Take the green new deal, or whatever Starmer's calling it these days. On one level, as Mick points out, levering in private capital to meet renewable generation objectives recalls the old PFI trick of hiding state capital spend off the books only for them to reappear years later rebadged as debts attached to the particular project. See hospitals, schools, childcare facilities, walk-in centres, and community centres for plenty of stories about how this ends up costing the public purse more in the long run. But there's more to it than this. New Labour were able to create so many PFI and PPP opportunities that, in effect, a section of capital had become dependent and retained a direct material interest in keeping the party that oversaw so many contracts in office. And likewise, to reciprocate they duly provided golden parachutes to senior Labour ministers when retirement came knocking. Doing the same on green energy crowds in capital when it comes to renewable investments, but with the consequence of ensuring this section of capital, which can only grow in importance as the century wears on, has a natural home in the Labour Party in the same way fossil fuels have with the Tories. From this will flow future business endorsements, donations, and eventual sinecures. Even though doing so is more expensive than simply investing in renewable generation and infrastructure with state money. Starmer's warm words for business is less about offering reassurances to a sceptical audience, but an invitation that under his administration, despite the ostensible break with overt market fundamentalism, they can fill their boots as before.

Starmer is offering something more than the Tories, and something better as well. But we're only talking about degrees, here. The end of cheap commodities, the ageing society and care crisis, climate catastrophe, and the challenge of automation require a policy agenda and an imagination ambitious and resilient enough to meet these problems. Whatever else was on offer in Starmer's speech, this wasn't.


Shai Masot said...

A vote for Labour at the next election will be a vote for the further privatisation of healthcare. So, don't vote Labour. Stay at home.

Blissex said...

«His approach to politics, even to his own party, is informed by being the head honcho of a large organisation where employees had to snap to attention. [...] His project, and part of the aim of this speech, is to make Britain a land fit for managers.»

This first part of our blogger's post goes the usual "managerialism" way, which I think is highly misleading because that's not politics, it is style. Politics is not about style, it is about which interests are being represented.

Conceivably one could have a managerialist, state-centralist, left-politics of representing the interests of those who benefit from lower housing cost inflation and better wages incomes and good public services.

But Starmer's politics are simply thatcherite, the style is a secondary aspect. So I appreciate more the second part of the post, which recognizes that Starmer's politics are not merely a matter of style but also of protecting and furthering the interests of non-workers:

«warm words for business [...] an invitation that under his administration, despite the ostensible break with overt market fundamentalism, they can fill their boots as before»

But here there is the implication of the usual old-left imagery that it is business people who benefit most from thatcherism, when it is instead mainly rentiers (finance and property).
As always that matters because for workers the losses to finance and property are far greater than to businesses in general, and because businesses in general are also losing a lot to rentiers. Businesses are actually a relatively "progressive" force against rentierism, as that guy from Trier was saying.

«A vote for Labour at the next election will be a vote for the further privatisation of healthcare.»

That's a bit too specific: a vote for New, New Labour is more generally a vote for continuity thatcherism, that is for more affordable wage costs and for higher property and finance incomes; the withering and privatisation of the NHS is just one aspect of that, and not the most important, even if quite significant.
“this archetypical voter as male, 50 years old, without a university degree but with a decent job in the private sector and, crucially, a homeowner with a mortgage. This person almost certainly voted leave, Ford added, explaining Labour’s insistence that it will not take the UK back into the single market.”

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in your assessment of Lindt's analysis -

Blissex said...

«I'd be interested in your assessment of Lindt's analysis -»

Thanks for the link. The article is quite interesting and from my point of view it says many reasonable things.

But I see things a bit differently: mostly that the rise of the managerial class has been to the detriment of the traditional owner class ("plutocrats"), and that what has been to detriment to the working class has been the rise of the petty-rentier class, mostly professionals. The difference is as always whether someone has a role as master (big or small), or trustie and servant (whether paid high or low).

As to the nation state, many usians lack the long term historical perspectives, one of which is the switch from infantry wars (before the feudal system, imperial wars) to cavalry wars (feudal age, dynastic wars), to industrial wars (current age, national wars). It is in the current age that the nation state had to come into existence to supply the logistics (taxation and production capacity) to enable industrial wars.

Some historians pin the two big changes to specific inventions, stirrup and rifle. Arguably airplanes have enabled a third transition, which we are still in the middle of.

There are many other details, one of them is:

«arguing in The New Class War that education, not income, is the major dividing line between classes in the modern West. But in this case, the common-sense view is the correct one: an underpaid professor belongs to the overclass, while a plumber who did not go to university but earns twice as much is a well-paid member of the working class»

The question really is power in the relationships of production, as some guy from Trier says: the poor adjunct professor/locum lecturer is a servant, or at best a very low level trustie, the better-paid plumber is either a servant or if a contractor with some "assistants", a low level master. Put another way belonging to the scribal profession does not make you as master or even a trustie. There is such a thing as the white-collar working class.

Another one is the reference to JK Galbraith:

«If the countervailing power of the working class in Western nations is to be rebuilt, organised labour will have to play the major role [...] Any resurgence of working-class power in the workplace and not just the ballot box will be met with ferocious resistance by the managerial elite.»

This is missing a reference to the mass-rentier elites, that 20-40% of voters, mostly but not all from the lower layers of the PMC, who got theirs via booming property and share prices, and who are the mass troops underpinning reganism/thatcherism. These are mostly people who would otherwise be the "vanguards of the proletariat", but have been pacified with their partial induction into the category of insider rentierism.