Starmer placed a bet on Labour wanting to win again. It is time to double down on it

by Jonathan Todd

Tom McTague in The Atlantic paints a scenario that should worry Keir Starmer. While Britain’s Covid-19 death toll has risen above 100,000, it may be that a successful vaccine drive leaves a more lasting memory.

After this piece was published, the UK’s vaccine spat with the EU escalated. Poor handling by Brussels leaves the impression that the EU do not like the UK’s vaccine lead, making it easier to spin the UK’s rollout as a Brexit win.

Suddenly, Kate Bingham might seem as likely as anyone else to be the next prime minister. In the meantime, the incumbent has reason to be optimistic about the next 12 months.

While Brexit’s teething problems are painful for those directly impacted, the strong consensus among economic forecasters is that output lost to Brexit in 2021 will be more than offset by gains from lockdown ending and pent up demand being unlocked.

These forecasters have an average UK GDP 2021 projection of 4.4%. Not enough to recover all growth lost in 2020 but our fastest annual rate of growth for over 30 years. Sufficient to make many people feel better about themselves and possibly their government. The resumption of activities now prevented by social distancing – visiting family, drinking with friends, hugging strangers – will also trigger a pervasive positivity in wider senses than the narrowly economic.

Labour should not be complacent about the extent to which the prime minister might make more sense in this context. But – as Dan Pfeiffer often says on Pod Save America – we should worry about everything in politics but panic about none of it.

Now is the time for Starmer to reenergise his leadership’s founding purpose. This is to show that our party has changed from that decisively rejected in 2019 and deserves a mandate to lead our country in a new direction.

That change starts with Labour being clear that we like things that we have spent the past decade allowing voters to believe that we do not: the private sector – it is the engine of the jobs that many voters depend upon; the nations and peoples of the UK – we must exude pride in the country that we want to lead; and the last Labour government – it seems odd that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown make substantive contributions to current policy debates, more so than much of the shadow cabinet, at the same time as Labour remains more associated for many voters with Jeremy Corbyn (whose shadow cabinet Starmer served in) and Ed Miliband (who Starmer has brought back to the shadow cabinet).

Labour’s detachment from Blair and, to a lesser extent, Brown tells voters that we do not like winners, and we represent something different from the only Labour government to have been in power in my lifetime. To voters, especially those who remember when what to do with the Millennium Dome was the UK’s biggest problem, this is weird.

Labour always needs to work twice as hard as the Tories to convince that we back business and will not waste public money. As shadow chancellor, Brown worked tirelessly to improve relations with business and to highlight government profligacy. Doing the same now is more important than advancing complex fiscal rules that voters do not understand and which create hostages to fortune.

Labour should celebrate the private sector’s contribution to vaccines and take the EU’s vaccine missteps as a cue to stop banging on about Europe – as David Cameron once encouraged his party.

Cameron was partially successful in communicating that his party had changed and as Labour seeks our own transformation, we must decline Tory bait to fight culture wars that trap Labour in left-wing cul-de-sacs and Corbynite invitations to retreat to ideological comfort zones from which government cannot be reached.

We rejected that offer by not choosing Rebecca Long-Bailey as leader. We chose a harder, but more rewarding, journey with Starmer: taking the steps necessary to win.

The prime minister might benefit from a flurry of economic activity as lockdown recedes but Labour needs to find a message and message carriers able to persuade that sustained and broad-based improvements in prosperity depend upon a new national direction.

Joe Biden is US president because enough Americans believe that he will run the economy for the benefit of places like Scranton, Pennsylvania, the blue-collar town of his youth, and for main streets, not for Wall Street.

Labour should be braced for the Tories benefitting from vaccines, but the UK’s road of Covid-19 recovery is long and can bend towards a Labour government if Starmer crafts our own version of Biden’s inclusive patriotism and capitalism.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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