Everything we know about Keir Starmer tells us he is deeply, almost instinctively, opposed to taking political risks.
The Labour leader, the narrative runs, offers few commitments, projects but a small target and relies for his political victories on the prime minister of the day getting bogged down in some self-inflicted crisis.
Sometimes Starmer will stoke and exploit Conservative division, (such as Labour’s opposition day fracking vote which preceded Liz Truss’ resignation as prime minister). But it means, for all the accusation of U-turns and profligacy on principle, Starmer’s script is strict indeed: he trusts that self-contained managerialism will contrast reassuringly with the Conservative party’s perceived chaos.
It is a level of consistency, rigorously focus-grouped and shaped by a close-knit team of advisers, that will have been aided by the fact Starmer is a relative political novice. Only an MP since 2015, as LOTO, Sir Keir has been moulded as a politician to our exact moment, conditioned by the Labour Party’s collective memory of 13 years of failed forebears.
Moreover, Starmer’s strategical consistency has also been shaped a posteriori by its success. A huge poll lead, the striking endurance of which makes it more and more difficult to dismiss as soft, has been borne and nurtured not by exciting enthusiasm, but by depriving his opponents of “dividing lines”.
The downside, of course, has been that Starmer’s coarse criticisms — be they on “small boats”, Raac in schools or on Britain’s various economic travails — have not always come with solutions.
But still, the Conservatives have continued to desperately goad Starmer, testing his commitment to his core strategy: thus the attempts at laying political traps through recent “energy” and “small boats” “weeks”. Still, through the summer Sir Keir refused to bite as he tacked tightly to the government’s positions. Starmer’s sustained summer silence, we can say in hindsight, won the long recess for Labour.
Nonetheless, it is apparent that no LOTO, not even one with an 18-point poll advantage, can permanently duck producing policy all the way to an election. What is more, Starmer is running out of potential U-turns or policy sacrifices through which he might deliberately signal his seriousness. Such positioning, on the Green Prosperity Plan and the two-child benefit cap, for example, worked for while in capturing the media’s attention. But, in political strategist terms, there may be no barnacles left to be scrapped off Starmer’s ship.
Likewise, while the “missions” have been sold as central to Starmer’s to political pitch, they have been more about framing Labour as an effective alternative government, than setting up totemic, pre-election dividing lines. Likewise, “mission” speeches secured Starmer the media spotlight for a time, but the Labour leader may now need new ways of courting the attention of the press gallery.
This week, therefore, Starmer has appeared to bury his instinctive risk-averse ways in favour of pronouncing on key, salient policy areas. It may be a sign of what is to come from the Labour leader as we head into conference season and then an election year.
Take Angela Rayner’s speech at the Trades Union Congress conference in Liverpool, for example. Rayner, newly empowered by her deputy prime minister and shadow levelling up secretary titles, variously announced in Liverpool: a ban on zero-hour contracts; an end to fire and rehire; family-friendly working; strengthened sick pay, making it available to all workers, including the lowest earners; and a proper living wage “which people can actually live on”.
She said the party would publish plans for a New Deal for Working People blueprint within 100 days as a “cast-iron commitment” — also committing her party to repealing the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 within the first 100 days of a Starmer-fronted administration.
A lot of this stuff has been announced before, but there had been repeated rumours that Starmer could renege drastically on his offering to workers in a bid to woo big business. This, therefore, was the Labour leader essentially doubling down on his pitch to the small “l” labour movement, abandoning the path of least resistance and signalling some political intent.
But cue the Conservative attacks as spokespersons, including party chairman and deputy chairman double-act Greg Hands and Lee Anderson, accused Rayner and Labour of taking orders from her “trade union paymasters”. On this subject matter, Starmer surely would have expected such a timeless Tory riposte.
Elsewhere, on the environment, Starmer chose to take a stand on government plans to relax curbs on water pollution caused by housebuilding. With sewage overflows a hot topic among many voters, Starmer now intends to turn the this into a possible wedge issue of his own. Labour Lords were instructed, therefore, to vote down the amendment while new shadow environment secretary Steve Reed pressed the case in the media.
Again, the Conservatives undertook to weaponise the episode, this time as proof that Labour is not, as it claims, the party of housebuilders. Michael Gove was the fastest out of the blocks following Labour’s Lords triumph, accusing Starmer of ending “the dream of home ownership for thousands”.
But the biggest signal that Starmer is now willing to take a stand against the Conservatives on salient issues is his new pitch on illegal migration. Fleshing out his party’s proposals this week, the Labour leader has promised to ditch the use of barges, hotels and military sites to house asylum seekers; to recruit 1,000 caseworkers to end the asylum backlog; and, as his flagship pledge, to strike a deal with Brussels that would involve the UK taking a quota of asylum seekers who arrive in the EU in exchange for the ability to return people who cross the Channel.
With the government having piled such political energy into its “stop the boats” pledge, Starmer now eyes political advantage in exposing perceived failures by highlighting the policy path not taken by ministers.
Still, Suella Braverman lost no time in claiming that Starmer’s plan would make the UK a “dumping ground” for Europe’s migrants, while Lee Anderson tweeted that Labour plans to “legalise illegal migration”. Rishi Sunak likewise told reporters: “I think he [Starmer] spent most of last year voting against a previous bill which has since then led to almost 700 arrests related to organised immigration crime, so I don’t think it’s credible that he really wants to grip this problem.”
Starmer’s decision to widen his “small target” on small boats — as he confidently sets out his policy on illegal migration and other salient topics, has therefore given the Conservatives some reason for optimism.
But Starmer’s slow move to a more principled policy position need not necessarily play into the Conservatives’ messaging — something the Labour leader clearly understands. Indeed, Sir Keir’s decision to answer the “what would you do?” here, comes on an area Starmer wants to co-opt as a “wedge issue” for his own ends. Sir Keir has talked tough on illegal migration before, adopting more and more muscular rhetoric lest he be accused of weakness, but now he has a clear policy platform from which to mount his attacks. (Certainly, it goes someway further than the party’s “five-point plan” on illegal migration, previously referred to when under strain at the despatch box or on the media round).
So Starmer, previously so single-minded about “scraping the barnacles” from the boat, is now applying a fresh lick of paint to his political operation. After his reshuffle reaffirmed the ideological foundations of the Starmerite project, the Labour leader has also ensured any new departures on policy from his party will be undertaken gradually and consistently — in line with his fiscal rules (his new illegal migration policy will be funded by scrapping the “gimmick” Rwanda plan, for example).
In the long view of British politics, therefore, perhaps this will be the week that is remembered as the time Starmer chose to enlarge his “small target” and, after a long period spent remaking his party in his own image, truly take the attack to the Conservatives.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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Picture from Keir Starmer’s flickr account.