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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Keir Starmer’s speech at the CBI has annoyed all the right people

The die-hard Remainers will be first in his cross-hairs as the Labour leader seeks to draw a line under his party’s catastrophic and politically illiterate opposition to Brexit, which even resulted in the party opposing Theresa May’s watered down deal, despite it offering what most Labour MPs claimed they wanted: a “soft” Brexit with Britain remaining in the customs union.

“Let me be clear,” Starmer told business leaders, “Labour does not want a rematch. Brexit has happened and we are not going to rejoin.”

Well, it’s about time. Starmer will be hoping that Remainers who still feel strongly about the issue will give Labour the benefit of the doubt and will stick with the party in the unspoken hope that a Labour government will renegotiate Boris Johnson’s deal in order to reinstate Britain’s membership of both the customs union and the single market. But such an expectation is based on very little and a degree of faith will be required to prevent them from embracing the Liberal Democrats or even the Greens at the next election.

But it is what Starmer said with regards to fiscal policy that will leave many of his internal party critics furious (or “more furious than usual”, to be accurate).

He said: “We absolutely don’t think that the solution to every problem is to throw cash at it. Labour will establish an Office of Value For Money to chase down every penny we spend. Just as every one of you scrutinises the cost side of your business, constantly asking yourself if investments are paying off, we will do the same on behalf of the tax-paying public.”

Labour in office “will never spend money just for the sake of it.”

It’s all very robust and is aimed not just at business leaders but at ordinary voters whose faith in the party as responsible stewards of the public purse has been sorely put to the test in the last decade. That might be an odd observation, given that the party hasn’t been in office for more than eleven years. But in the period since, there has hardly been a single spending issue on which Labour has come down on the side of lowering the level of cash made available for services. Whether it’s Universal Credit, the Bedroom Tax, social care, health spending – you name it, the constant cry from the Labour benches, irrespective of how much money is actually being promised, is “It’s not enough.”

On some occasions the party has been right. Unfortunately, because of its broad brush approach to public spending, Labour under Ed Miliband and especially Jeremy Corbyn reinforced voters’ traditional perceptions that it would splash the cash in every direction as soon as it gained office. Which is one of the main reasons it didn’t gain office.

Starmer’s words – that he will not spend money “just for the sake of it” – might be seen to be the “get out” clause for the party’s instinctive spenders, in the same way that his promise to “make Brexit work” might be interpreted by optimistic Remainers as a pledge to move Britain closer to the EU. If a future Labour government [sic] won’t spend “just for the sake of it”, when does “for the sake of it” actually apply? Is any worthy cause justification enough? And anyway, which government has ever spent any money “just for the sake of it”, like the lead character in “Brewster’s Millions” seeking to get rid of cash simply in order to have none left?

It’s entertaining to read some of the heart-broken comments by Labour (and former) Labour members whose disillusionment with Starmer’s leadership grows with every public utterance. “I didn’t rejoin the Labour Party to hear language like this,” one disappointed comrade wrote on Twitter.

No, I bet he didn’t. What this particular keyboard activist misses is that any successful Labour leader must always prioritise those who didn’t vote for the party last time. If the only people who vote Labour in 2023 or 2024 are the same voters who turned up in 2019 to place their cross in the Labour candidate’s box, then Boris Johnson is all but guaranteed another 80-seat majority. A Labour leader’s job is to win new converts to the cause. How can he possibly do that by reheating the failed offering from four years previously?

Starmer seems to get this. He recognises that Gordon Brown, as shadow chancellor before the 1997 general election, reassured a lot of nervous voters by promising to stick to the Conservative government’s spending plans for the first two years of a Labour administration. This displeased a lot of Labour members. And it didn’t matter. 

The question is: does Starmer mean it? What examples can the Labour leader show to prove that his and his front bench’s instincts are to say “no” whenever some worthy cause raises its head demanding funding?

If such examples don’t exist yet, he needs to start accumulating them, and fast. Labour needs to become known as the mean party, the reluctant party, the party that will almost (almost) always say “no” and will make you jump through hoops if you want to establish the case for funding.

So far, that seems beyond the party’s ability. But it need not always be so. There’s still time to prove that Starmer means what he says. But it will mean saying no, and it will mean meaning it. 

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