Starmer has mastered the speeches about Tory ‘chaos’ and ‘decline’, but Britain needs hope – where is it? | Andy Beckett

To win power, opposition parties need to say something compelling about the status quo. This isn’t necessarily as easy as just advocating “change”, the word Labour has chosen to emphasise in the speeches and backdrops of its big election events and on the side of its battlebus.

Promise too much change, as the party did in 2019, and voters either won’t believe you can make it happen, or will be put off by the potential disruption. Promise too little change, as Labour did at the 2015 election, and voters will remain unengaged.

Then there is the question of communication. How good is the opposition leader, and their candidates and activists, at making change sound appealing? Under the careful, conscientious Keir Starmer, Labour seems to offer a welcome shift from the Tories’ slapdash and reckless rule. But whether such a switch to what you could call slow politics has long-term appeal to an electorate that has got used to manic governments is something we have yet to find out.

Trickier still for Labour is the issue of voter complicity with the Conservatives. Even the most rotten status quo always has beneficiaries. Some of them are rich and powerful, with privileged access to the media, such as the non-doms, private equity firms and rightwing press proprietors that have flourished under the Tories. But others are relatively ordinary citizens, such as the better-off pensioners and homeowners whom Conservative policies since 2010 have also blatantly favoured. All these interest groups usually see a Labour government as a threat – despite the party’s patchy record of redistributing power and wealth. When seeking office, Labour has to choose between reassuring the winners from Tory eras or promising to reduce their dominance – or it has to find clever ways to do both.

Long periods out of power also present Labour with a less obvious but even bigger problem: how not to appear alien in an economic and social landscape largely created by its opponents, where many voters find it hard to imagine anyone but the Tories in Downing Street. Large Labour poll leads may have become familiar to those who follow politics, and therefore the notion that the party holds the political initiative and could theoretically run the country, but no Briton under 30 has adult experience of an actual Labour government.

The last time Labour had the exciting but anxious experience of campaigning as the change party against a stale and unpopular government in a country that had largely forgotten how centre-left rule felt was during the 1997 election. I remember travelling with Tony Blair by train, watching the Britain built by Thatcherism slide past the windows, new private housing estates, business parks and busy roads, and wondering how Labour could get any purchase on this harder, shinier world – how the party could make a meaningful difference if it finally got back into government.

It soon became clear that Blair’s solution was to accept much of what Margaret Thatcher and her successor, John Major, had done over the previous 18 years. “Some things the Conservatives got right,” said Labour’s 1997 manifesto, with disconcerting directness for anyone on the left. “We will not change them.”

At least at first, the Blair government deftly wove progressive reforms such as the minimum wage and devolution for Scotland and Wales into the rough fabric of the Thatcherised economy and state. One reason Blair was able to do this was that New Labour, encouraged by sympathetic thinkers such as the sociologist Anthony Giddens, had carefully studied and thought about the country it aimed to inherit. This sensitivity to social realities would become a weakness – a source of reasons not to pursue more radical change – but for Blair’s first half dozen years as leader, in opposition and then office, it was a strength. New Labour understood modern Britain.

Can the same be said of Starmer’s party? He has got good at making speeches about the country’s “chaos” and “decline” under the Tories, at persuasively laying out what has gone wrong with our public services, privatised utilities and standard of living. Despite his lingering stiffness as a communicator, he’s become more effective at channelling voters’ dissatisfaction.

Yet the fact that his portrayal of the status quo is, justifiably, so negative suggests that, should Labour win, his task will be harder than Blair’s. Rather than the relatively vibrant, if ever more unequal economy and society of the late 1990s, with its signs of reviving national confidence such as the Young British Artists and Britpop, Starmer will inherit a depressed country. Its surface appearance hasn’t deteriorated that dramatically since 2010, thanks to pockets of growing wealth, widespread speculative construction and fancy new cars financed through loan deals – which all distract the eye, to an extent, from the shut-down council amenities and vanished high street shops. But inside many homes things are bleaker, with worsening public health, and meals and central heating in effect rationed to save money.

When Starmer does talk about the texture of everyday life and how Labour could change it for the better, he often uses old-fashioned, pre-Thatcherite phrases such as “working people” and “service of our country”. It’s refreshing to hear an otherwise centrist, pro-business Labour leader speaking emphatically about class and the non-commercial imperatives of public service. But the backward-looking language suggests that, so far at least, not enough new thinking about Britain lies behind the rhetoric.

Strikingly, the one part of society to which Labour has paid close attention is the conventionally patriotic, socially conservative voter in the villages and towns of England. Brexit, which such voters supported in decisive numbers, is one cause of our current stagnation that Labour, for all its change talk, insists it has no intention of reversing.

Another is the squeeze on public spending since 2010, which the party says it will largely continue. Will that approach survive a Starmer administration’s first winter NHS crisis, or a meltdown in another underfunded public service? If and when such a moment comes, the change that Starmer talks about so much may have to happen inside the government itself.

  • Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist. His book on Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left since the 1960s, The Searchers: Five Rebels, Their Dream of a Different Britain, and Their Many Enemies, is out now

The Guardian

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