Tony Blair, Labour’s most successful election-winning prime minister, had no doubt that being in government was better than being in opposition.
The fundamental difference, he would say, is that in opposition politicians can only talk; in government they can actually do things.
As the Conservative Party struggles to improve the state of Britain after their 13 years in power, Tory politicians have been doing a lot of talking.
Much attention has been lavished recently on two schismatic, and sparsely attended, conferences undermining the leadership of Rishi Sunak.
In Bournemouth, the Conservative Democratic Organisation yearned for the return of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Home Secretary Suella Braverman was the star speaker at the National Conservatism event in London, inspired by the radical right in the United States.
For now, the actual Leader of the Opposition can only talk.
Sir Keir Starmer’s chance will come if and when Labour wins the coming general election. Since that is looking increasingly likely, it is worth looking more closely at two key speeches he gave this week about what his government might do.
Sir Keir’s thinking has evolved a great deal since he took over the leadership from Jeremy Corbyn, who has since been kicked out of the parliamentary Labour Party for good.
A less radical tone
Back in the spring of 2020, Britain was in the grip of the pandemic lockdown. Campaigning rallies were an impossibility. Sir Keir issued his manifesto for party members online.
In My Pledges To You, he promised to “maintain our radical values … based on the moral case for socialism”.
This week he struck a very different, less radical, more inclusive, tone in his speech, entitled Country First.
“If that sounds conservative, then let me tell you: I don’t care,” he told the Progressive Britain Conference bluntly.
He warned that Labour‘s ambition to push the country forward “must never become unmoored from working peoples’ need for stability, for order, security.
“We must understand that there are precious things – in our way of life, in our environment, in our communities – that it is our responsibility to protect and preserve, to pass on to future generations.”
Sir Keir was elected leader comfortably partly because his 10 pledges let down supporters of Corbyn gently. Since then, five of the 10 have been sidelined.
Rachel Reeves, who is now shadow chancellor, has dropped plans to increase income tax and the Conservative government has already put up corporation tax.
Labour’s instincts for class war are limited to going after privileged soft targets such as non-doms and private schools.
A proposed Prevention Of Military Intervention Act has now morphed into mandating a parliamentary vote – which the Blair government called before the Iraq War anyway.
Labour now plans to “fundamentally reform” rather than abolish Universal Credit.
In spite of the problems with water and railways, the next Labour government is no longer proposing renationalisation of public services.
Sir Keir now says his priority is making Brexit work rather than reversing its main consequences.
The documents for this summer’s Labour Policy Forum propose no return to freedom of movement or a points-based system for immigration.
The Labour leader’s 2020 pledges to his party have been superseded this year by his “five missions for a Better Britain”, only one of which – “make Britain a clean energy superpower” – relates directly to an old pledge for “a green new deal”.
Sir Keir says he has the “simple aim” at the election of “restoring hope for working people”.
For him that means concentrating on the basics: sustained economic growth, the NHS, making the streets safe, increasing opportunity for all.
The Labour leader likened the task of winning back “the trust of working people” to “Clause Four on steroids” – a reference to Tony Blair’s successful battle to change his party’s constitutional commitment to public ownership of private enterprise.
He also insists his strategy to win power is not the same as New Labour’s in the 1990s.
‘Red Wall’ key to victory
New Labour extended its “big tent” out from its core “working-class” supporters to bring in middle-class professionals and the more affluent.
Based on analysis of the recent local elections, Sir Keir is calculating that he can assume support from city dwellers and the university educated.
Victory will be clinched by winning back “working people” in the so-called “Red Wall”, many of whom fell out with the party over its opposition to Brexit.
To Labour’s relief, where voters stood on Leave or Remain no longer seems to be the dominant factor in how people intend to vote.
In another important address this week, this time to the British Chambers of Commerce, Sir Keir took the risk of suggesting that Brexit had contributed to a “doom loop of low growth and high taxes”.
He pledged that the next Labour government will seek a closer trading relationship with the EU. His pitch to business, which he praised as “the backbone of our economy”, went further.
He promised direct government intervention with “industrial policy” to promote tech and green industries and planning reform to make it easier to build “the windfarms, the laboratories, the warehouses and the homes this country so desperately needs”.
Sir Keir’s signals of intent are becoming clear. The details of policy to implement his goals are still vague. They are likely to be subjects of intense argument inside the Labour movement between now and the election campaign.
For example, repealing curbs on unions introduced by the Conservatives and the proposed workers “right to switch off” from out-of-hours contacts by employers may come into conflict with Sir Keir’s pro-business stance.
Some environmentalists may join Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives in opposing his argument that building on the green belt should not be banned in all circumstances.
Labour has a long process to go through in compiling its final manifesto.
This summer members of the National Policy Forum will meet to debate, amend and agree on policy proposals submitted in an open consultation process. This autumn’s Labour Conference discuss them.
The debate is bound to be furious – radicals are already complaining about what is missing, such as the pledge to abolish university tuition fees.
The final formal “Clause V” meeting of politicians, national executive members and trade unions to sign off the finished document has become a largely ceremonial event.
Ultimately these discussions only “inform” what the leader’s team put into the manifesto, as Labour’s promises to the electorate.
Sir Keir Starmer’s pro-business, pro-green, pro-“working people”, small-c conservative policies are shaping into a fresh offer to the British people.
They will decide whether he follows in Blair’s footsteps and wins the chance to act.