Starmer’s speech proves Labour is still navel gazing

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The thing about contracts is that they can only be entered into willingly by each party. Announcing a new contract between yourself and X, without reference to X or to what X actually wants, seems a touch arrogant.

Moreover, to announce a new contract two years after the last contract negotiations, when X rejected any notion that it even wanted to do business with your firm, reeks of unjustified optimism. 

Still, this is what Leaders of the Opposition do early in each New Year: they seek to instill in the voters a sense of progress, of momentum (note the lower case “m”) that will, they hope, carry their party to victory. For Keir Starmer that task is crucial if he is to capitalise on, and even make permanent, the poll lead his party has been given by the Government in recent months.

Given that the latest national poll of voting intention gives Labour a slim three-point lead, it’s easy to see the urgency of bringing voters’ minds back to the reality of political cut and thrust, and away from the more pleasant, though less politically engaging, matters of Christmas telly, festive grub and taking the decorations down. Starmer has no time to waste.

As is the way of such “relaunch” speeches, the Labour leader’s speech was littered with language that no one, whatever their political inclination, would find offensive. Security, prosperity and respect seem to be the key words that found their way into the party’s press release headlines, words that have been undoubtedly tested repeatedly in front of focus groups in recent weeks.

He made a couple of missteps during the question and answer session with journalists, however. In response to the suggestion – often aimed at him by the hard Left – that he has reneged on the ten pledges he committed to during the leadership contest to replace Jeremy Corbyn, he stated: “I stand by those pledges.”

Oh dear. A quick review of those pledges will offer any number of hostages to fortune that Starmer could easily do without; his nervousness about abandoning (most of) them – which he will need to do at some point before the next election – suggests he remains too in thrall to the unelectable wing of his party.

Secondly, in valiantly (and correctly) defending Sir Tony Blair’s knighthood, he chose to be unnecessarily divisive by stating that Boris Johnson – who has not yet been nominated for any honour – does not deserve one. The primary task of any prime minister is to try to unite the country; falling into the petition-signers’ trap of making the honours system a matter of party political partisanship does not bode well for any future Starmer-led government.

His third mistake will probably be overlooked because it is one he has made repeatedly in the past and few can be bothered even to mention it any more: a new constitutional settlement for the entire UK based on a federal model, a model on which another former prime minister, Gordon Brown, is, as we speak, hard at work.

You would think Labour would have worked it out by now, wouldn’t you? With every new tranche of powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament, with every increase in responsibility beyond what was originally proposed in the Scotland Act 1998, Scottish Labour has withered, the SNP have increased their popularity and the Union itself has been weakened. Every. Single. Time.

And yet with all the enthusiasm of Einstein’s hypothetical asylum inmate, Labour advocate a repeat of the same action, each time expecting a different outcome. This time round, the new constitution is to be imposed on not only Scotland but the whole of the UK. Will there be a referendum to endorse this scheme? If not, why not? If so, are they in fact mad?

Still, there was a bit of sense spoken by Starmer on the other side of this constitutional coin: Labour will never enter into a pre-election pact with the SNP, nor into a coalition agreement with them after the votes are cast. This makes sense. No minority Labour government will ever be brought down by the votes of nationalist MPs, even if they demand, and are refused, their precious second independence referendum. The electoral consequences of ushering in another Conservative government – as happened in 1979 after the SNP voted with Margaret Thatcher to bring down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government – would be catastrophic for the SNP. It took them nearly two decades to recover last time; they will make no similar mistakes again.

Labour’s Twitter account grandly announced that Starmer’s speech represented a “new” contract with Britain. But there was little in it that was new. His leadership election pledges are nearly two years old, and his promises on constitutional reform have been hanging in the air like an unpleasant smell for a decade. I suppose that withholding honours from PMs you don’t like is new: it will please a handful of journalists and a good deal of his own membership, the latter of which remains Starmer’s primary focus and audience.

And that, right there, is the problem with Starmer’s approach thus far. He already has the support of his party, he can stop pandering to them now. It may sound cynical but the Labour leader needs to get beyond his perennial fear of upsetting his troops and start prioritising what ordinary voters – particularly voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote Labour last time – want. 

If he doesn’t, then 2022 is going to be a very long year for him and his party.

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