Week-in-Review: The canny politics behind Starmer’s ‘GB Energy’

A week is a long time in politics, so you will be forgiven for forgetting that Labour closed their annual party conference on Wednesday. Since then, the Bank of England has begun buying bonds to prop up the British economy, the pound dropped to a low of $1.05, interest rates seem destined to rise further and faster, pension funds are teetering on the edge and the IMF is on the government’s case. It is no secret that Starmer’s “Labour moment” was overshadowed by a perfect economic storm.

But amid apocalyptic predictions of mortgage deals being suspended, a return to the driven and optimistic atmosphere of Labour conference might offer some welcome respite. Even before the worst of the “mini-budget” fallout, Starmer left Liverpool on Wednesday with his electoral appeal and authority hugely enhanced.

The Labour leader’s strategy to date is well-known. It has been to create a small target, offer few commitments and count on the prime minister of the day getting bogged down in blue-on-blue scuffles and dug-in with Conservative dogma. This afforded Starmer a soft poll lead—the most he could expect without a robust agenda for government. However, in Liverpool Starmer signalled a change in tack. With Truss consumed by multiple crises, Starmer will look to capitalise on his poll advantage.

The party’s recent key policy pledge, ‘Great British Energy’, is a case in point.

In his speech at the Labour conference on Tuesday, Starmer announced that within his first year as prime minister, he would create a new publicly-owned clean energy generation company. Essentially a state-owned start-up, GB Energy would be funded through the £8bn national wealth fund announced earlier in the week by Rachel Reeves while operating completely independently. The economic reasoning behind the plan is that a state-backed company would be able to make riskier investments in clean energy solutions such as wind, tidal, solar or nuclear, in turn giving the public purse a stake in Britain’s green transition.

According to Starmer, the plan would help deliver clean power by 2030, save British households £93bn for the rest of the 2020s and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

What is instantly noteworthy about ‘GB Energy’ is its potentially very wide political appeal. For one, the plan has a natural affinity with green, pro-environmentalist politics, underlining the party’s commitment to climate change solutions. Amounting to a full embrace of the ‘green growth’ agenda, Starmer told the conference floor: the “road to net zero is no longer one of stern, austere self-denial – it’s at the heart of modern, 21st-century aspiration”. In other words: net zero need not be a zero-sum game; economic growth and climate protection can go hand-in-hand.

This pitch is likely to come across as particularly persuasive at a time when the government appears to be neither prioritising climate protection nor ensuring Britain’s long-term financial stability. As the government was announcing an end to the fracking moratorium, sterling was going through the floor. Hardly the best of both worlds.

GB Energy also has a distinct patriotic edge – something the Labour party desperately needs to win back former red wall seats. Starmer continued in his speech: “[GB Energy will be] a new company that takes advantage of opportunities in clean British power because it’s right for jobs, right for growth, right for energy independence from tyrants like Putin”.

This is a seriously canny communications strategy.

With this, Starmer effectively steals the ‘pro-sovereigntist’ discourse which dominated the Brexit debate and re-parcels it as an economic, left-wing case for state control: public ownership with a patriotic twist.

Starmer went on: “The largest onshore wind farm in Wales: who owns it? Sweden. Energy bills in Swansea are paying for schools and hospitals in Stockholm. The Chinese Communist Party has a stake in our nuclear industry. And five million people in Britain pay their bills to an energy company owned by France”. This thread of patriotism should trouble the Tories greatly.

So at a time when the government is exposed on green issues, the economy and even the issue of national image, GB Energy seems to cover all bases. And the results make pleasant reading for Starmer and his team.

Polling conducted by Common Wealth reported that 72 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2019 were in favour of a state energy company that is publicly owned and designed to help generate sustainable power for the country.

Notwithstanding Labour’s astonishing 22-point poll lead, it remains risky for Labour to rely, as they have done so far, on the politics of default. Developing an ideologically coherent vision must be a priority for Starmer if he is to become prime minister in 2024 with a healthy majority.

The Labour Party has already come a long way since last year’s conference in Brighton, where left-wing dissent was so threatening that Starmer needed pre-prepared ripostes for Corbynite hecklers. The left is still strong in the party, but policies like GB Energy and the new commitment to public ownership of the railways, which are popular with activists, will at least project an image of party unity. Even rail union leader Mick Lynch hinted at the chance of reconciliation with the Labour leadership saying “we cannot have division. We’ve only got the one labour movement”.

Where she may have expected a coronation three weeks ago, Liz Truss now heads to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, facing the most difficult backdrop for any sitting prime minister in decades.   As she does so, the policy energy is with Keir Starmer and the Labour Party.