How to make Starmerism work

Nat Rutherford

‘A chance to diagnose the condition of Britain… and to start the process of putting it right.’ That was Keir Starmer’s promise in his speech yesterday calling for ‘A New Chapter for Britain’. What was his diagnosis and what was his cure? For Starmer, Britain’s illness is the Tories and its cure is Labour. He talked about an ‘ideology that’s failed’, but didn’t specify what the ideology is. He condemned inequality and insecurity, but identified no structural causes beyond Tory indifference. His party political focus reinforces the message of Starmer’s 2020 conference speech, where he said that Labour’s reason for existing is winning elections. Prioritising electoral success is right. Of course it is. Good thoughts and policies are no better than good dreams without power. But a myopic focus only on defeating the Tories in 2024 can’t sustain Labour and, even on Starmer’s own terms, it won’t win over the voters he needs.

Starmer, like all Labour supporters, is haunted by the ghosts of 2019. His ambition is to prevent a similar defeat, but a negative vision—‘not Corbyn’, ‘not Johnson’, ‘not again’—will make defeat more likely. What will most voters hear about Starmer’s speech? Nothing. The majority will be unaware that he made a speech at all. Those who did will have heard the same talk of inequality and injustice that the Tories have feigned for a decade. This vague appeal to values is too ubiquitous to distinguish Starmer from his opponents. The banalities of focus-grouped moralism won’t work as an electoral strategy. Even if Labour’s 2019 supporters can forgive the cynical and implausible appeal to family and patriotism, no one votes for a candidate because they’ve promised in abstract terms to realise the value of equality.

Starmer and his team have succumbed to the intuitive but false belief that pragmatism requires triangulation. The only pragmatic option is a radical departure from the status quo. But the internal contradictions of the British electorate cannot be triangulated away. There is no goldilocks compromise of anti-migrant sentiment, appeals to family, Tory-bashing, pro-business rhetoric, and NHS funding promises that will make the Labour vote whole again. And as capitalism deforms into its purest and most unsustainable form yet (as we keep whispering with Beckett, ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished’…), cobbling together an electoral coalition from spreadsheet demographics isn’t enough.

Instead, what Labour needs is a simple and radical story about the material conditions of people’s lives. The lesson Starmer should take from the last election is not that radical policies are unpopular, because they’re not. But even Corbyn’s supporters recognise that he failed to tell a compelling story about what Labour is for, what it wants, and what purpose it serves. Perhaps a nuanced, social democratic, anti-racist, redistributive, pro-business, and internationalist patriotism is possible (although no one has ever seen it in the wild), but it would be better to pursue a simpler line of analysis: work, for too many people, is intolerably bad.

Starmer is clearly aware of this. In the speech, he mentioned his dad, who ‘worked on the factory floor his entire life’ to ‘build a better life for his family’. A programme to replicate his dad’s ‘steady, secure job’ for Britain’s workers is what will get Labour to power. His only hope of electoral success is to be more courageous in offering a materialist solution to the daily woe of voters. It’s easy but ineffective to react to every instance of Tory venality, negligence, and deliberate cruelty. The ad hoc politics of competence will be lost in the maw of Westminster’s news cycle. Starmer called his speech a ‘call to arms’. But no one will take up arms with a leader who promises ‘a strong partnership with business’. Starmer needs to tell a story about workers and the prospect of liberation from their current state.

This story should combine a realistic analysis of Britain’s failings with a utopian vision of how those failings might be remedied. The only story that can do that is about work: why work in 2021 is so unfulfilling, so poorly paid, so riven with inequality, domination, and despair. That’s not a story that valorises work and scolds those who can’t find it, but one which recognises that good work, for most people, is a necessary condition of having a good life. The Tories boasted, at least until the pandemic, about record levels of employment. But everyone knew it was often bad work: insecure, part-time, or dubiously ‘self-employed’. It was work which prevented people from living fulfilling lives.

Work can’t frame every policy or position, but it can offer a substantive unifying programme. Starmer wants to address inequality? Talk about relational inequality and the domination of managerial hierarchies. Starmer wants to address climate change? Talk about the Green New Deal and funding thousands of green jobs in infrastructure and energy. He wants to address anxiety and mental health? Talk about curtailing the gig economy and ending employers’ exploitative practices. Labour wants to address education? Talk about overworked teachers and the chronic underfunding of apprenticeships in further education. He wants to address tech, automation, and the gross power of corporations? Talk about the four day week, talk about universal basic income, talk about collective ownership. You want to address the apocryphal ‘red wall’? Talk about community wealth building and the Preston Model. You want to address institutional racism? Start by talking about workplace discrimination. Starmer wants to tackle poverty? Start with the prevalence of in-work poverty and the impending youth unemployment crisis.

The pandemic has expedited changes to work that were already underway, but that sudden shift also gives Labour an opportunity. The unwinding of the furlough scheme will see hundreds of thousands of workers made unemployed in the next year with only an enfeebled and disinclined state to support them. A post-work society is coming faster than anyone realised, but Labour should recognise that a story about the value of work can also be about freedom from work. Freedom from drudgery, exploitation, presenteeism, collegial competition, and boredom. Who cares if Labour says, for the thousandth time, that they value equality? But people will care if Starmer can show voters how their lives can change. Released from the phantasmal dead hand of austerity, Labour can offer a programme of reforms that show that they are still the only party that cares about workers.

Nat Rutherford teaches political theory at Royal Holloway, University of London.