Tuesday 10 October 2023

Vibing a Decade of Renewal

Brushing the glitter off like so many discarded leadership pledges, a confident Keir Starmer took to the stage of Labour Party conference to deliver what was perhaps the best speech of his career. True to form, the promises were thin on the ground but the vibes weighed in with serious reverb. There were even rhetorical flights of fancy, but let's not get carried away.

Starting with the substance, there weren't any surprises. Nor was there too much of it. 1.5m new homes and a new wave of Labour new towns, a national wealth fund to kickstart investment in British industry (and, interestingly, the retention of stakes in the projects it invests in), new development corporations to bulldoze through planning blockages, an upgraded national grid, cheaper green energy, more infrastructure, a restatement of workers' rights (no zero hour contracts, fire and rehire), and a reaffirming the ambition of getting 50% of young people into university while massively expanding the provision of technical colleges. There were genuflections to the new iron fiscal rules, but overall this was the jam tomorrow that many in the Labour Party have been waiting for. The contrast with Rishi Sunak's paltry offering (accurately diagnosed by Starmer as the "stand aside state") couldn't be more stark.

Indeed, by the Labour leader's standards his critique of the Tories was perhaps the fiercest he has made. The usual incompetence/ideology coupling took a rare backseat as the speech drifted into Delphic allusions to class interest and struggle. Sunak, apparently, cannot see the country in front of him because the walls of Westminster are too high. But rather than leaving it at that, Starmer attacked the Tory mindset that saw the lives of "working people" as so many pieces on a boardgame. It's okay for these interests to be ignored and rode over roughshod as long as people like the Tories themselves are looked after. Blimey. Even more, he had a go at positioning Labour as the party of the universal interest versus the partiality and decadence of his opponents. Which, I suppose, it is on paper but not how the Labour right understand it.

The Tories weren't the only ones Starmer took aim at. Belatedly realising a project of grey managerialism won't fly, the speech needed a few enemies to rail against. The struggles of the recent past, of "gesture politics" and "party of protest" got the ritual incantations, but the targets were those standing in the way of Labour's 10-year mission of national renewal. These are the "blockers", such as speculators who hold onto their land banking investments, and councils that cleave to the nimby interests. There people, those who "say no", have too long wielded a veto over "aspiration", and a Labour government will push them aside.

But what was particularly interesting was the choice of language. There was a heavy emphasis on security, stability, community, partnership, calmer waters, on plans and the long-term and, of course, "working people". In a way, I should be gratified that - entirely coincidentally, I'm sure - the arguments made on this blog a decade ago about how Labour should frame its programme, especially if it's talking about making reforms, in terms of ending uncertainty and offering a sense of security have finally percolated through. And didn't Starmer lay on the stability vibes very thickly? He was able to manage the trick of, to the untrained eye, offering an ambitious vision of what Labour are aiming at without sounding scary or frightening the horses. No price tags were mentioned for this very reason. Whereas the Tories spent their conference trying to stir up fear and, arguably, hate towards Labour, Starmer had a stab at offering hope.

If you weren't paying much attention to the Milquetoast character of Starmer's policy announcements, and the paucity of ambition revealed in the small print it might have been easy to have got taken in. For example, where Starmer's base are concerned, it plays very much to their concerns and interests. Saying that the next Labour government has to complete the different challenges faced by Labour in 1997 (rebuild the public realm), 1964 (catch up on technology), and 1945 (bring the country together after national trauma) all in one go, the reeled off list of missions and would-be projects offers them career opportunities. It spoke to the technocratic imagination. Where the media are concerned, there's wasn't anything here to unduly worry them and the interests they articulate. Everything was couched in terms of business as partners, and where workers' rights got a look in the emphasis was on them being good for economic growth.

In all, Starmer can be pretty pleased with his speech. Even the Adam Smith Institute gave him a positive write up. There was enough rhetoric for the professional-managerial base, enough for trade unions concerned about the paucity of technical education, and even enough for working class people at home that might have caught snippets on the radio, TV, or social media clips. He needed to give a speech to show he was ready for government, and it was fair to say he cleared that hurdle. The great unknown however is the extent to which he meant what he said because, as anyone will tell you, past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour.


Rodney said...

It does seem to be damning with faint praise that the speech many commentators are saying was Starmer's best ever is described by The Guardian as "coherent".

But that aside the policy offered is just a rehash of the Northern Powerhouse agenda Osborne was so fond of (in hopes of blaming local government for the outcome of austerity), housebuilding targets, pledges to simplify planning and preferential treatment for first time buyers that wouldn't be out of place in a speech by Gove and rhetoric on empowering "working people" from the coalition era.

Which, "Red Tory" accusations aside, strongly suggests an agenda Labour won't be able to deliver on. The people who stopped Capital's A Team implementing this certainly aren't going to give the B Team a free pass. Especially when Starmer is so beholden to them.

So it doesn't really matter if Starmer likely doesn't mean what he says, he can't do it even if he wanted to.

PurplePete said...

The well rolled turd beneath the all that glitter was the giveaway.

Anonymous said...

«those standing in the way of Labour's 10-year mission of national renewal. These are the "blockers", such as speculators who hold onto their land banking investments, and councils that cleave to the nimby interests. There people, those who "say no", have too long wielded a veto over "aspiration", and a Labour government will push them aside.»

Pretty much overt recognition that "property" is the meaning of "aspiration", at least for New Labour and their base.

But if so that is *wrong*: contrary to the mythology that the (lower) "Middle England" voters targeted by New Labour want "to own their homes", nobody really wants to sink all their savings, and get 20 times debt on top, to own an asset that does not generate big rapid capital gains (the same will happen with degrees as the "graduate premium" disappears from non-Russell universities), entirely redistributed from the lower classes.

As soon as New Labour notices that an expanded supply of housing reduces the profits of property-owning voters (among them the vast majority of New Labour MPs and party officials, and probably a small majority of members), I guess that Starmer will once again demonstrate how "pragmatic" he is and champion land-banking and NIMBYsm.

Blissex said...

«The well rolled turd beneath the all that glitter was the giveaway.»

This is classic misunderstanding about policy, underlying the right-wing propaganda about fantasies like "austerity" (or "smaller state" or "state inactivity"): for the electoral base of Conservatives, New Labour, LibDems, that is not a "turd", it is a slice of chocolate cake: lower wage-related costs and higher asset-related incomes have been delivered for over 40 years with only a few interruptions, and the living standards of "Middle England" (and "Upper England" too) have been rising.

What you call a "turd" is a policy package the delivers £50,000 a year tax-free capital gains on a cheap £500,000 2 bed flat, entirely work-free because wholly redistributed from the lower classes. For "Middle England" voters that's fantastic: they can satisfy their aspiration to spend the entirety of their income, safe in the knowledge that somebody poorer than them is working hard to save up for their pension, that is to buy or rent their property when they downsize or move to a care home or to a picturesque cottage in Greece (or merely remortgage it).

The servant classes do get a “well rolled turd”, but they don't matter, but most of those 14 million tory voter (plus a few million more New Labour and LibDem ones) are not morons who vote for a “well rolled turd”: they vote for chocolate cake for themselves and they get it, courtesy of big=-money intervention of the state in the markets too.

Am I the only person who notices how increasingly prosperous are the areas where "Middle England" people live, and who gets to listen to smug stories of how well they are doing thanks to booming property markets and cheaper labour costs plus higher fees they can charge if professionals?