Sir Keir Starmer has said to anyone who would listen over the past couple of years that he is pursuing a three-pronged political strategy – to reform his party, expose Tory policy failures and put forward a clear Labour alternative.
Well, with a 20-25% poll lead, they’re listening now.
With complete control at every level of his party and Jeremy Corbyn no longer a Labour MP, Starmer has clearly met his first objective. Thursday’s by-election victory in Chester, which saw a 13.6% swing to Labour, represents a hardening of national polling and suggests he has met his second objective also: with the help of Liz Truss and Kwazi Kwarteng and the most significant drop in living standards since 1956.
So today marks the next stage of that strategy with the publication of a report which promises to hand new economic and law-making powers to mayors and devolved governments, which Labour says is the “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.”
Why is this important? Starmer has taken great care to close off every attack line that the Tories could be expected to throw at him. On immigration – he wants a point-based system. On EU membership – Britain won’t be joining any time soon. Nationalising rail, energy and water – he’s taking a pragmatic approach.
The last redoubt of the Tories is to claim that Labour doesn’t have a plan which makes voters feel uneasy and allows Sunak, as he did at PMQs last week, to frame a Labour government as resulting in “more debt, more inflation, more strikes and more migration.” These, of course, are all the ills currently afflicting his own administration.
The report provides an element of certainty into what a Labour government would do in power and, as you might expect from the pen of Gordon Brown, is granular in detail. It seeks to position Labour as a government in waiting. Crucially it provides a framework that businesses can plan against and an idea of where investment will come under Labour.
Powers are to be devolved from the centre to mayoralties, devolved regions and governments over skills, transport, planning and culture. Three hundred embryonic growth clusters have been identified, which are focused on life sciences, advanced manufacturing and digital services.
The move is Starmer’s comeback to Brexit, levelling up, and pressure to hold a second independence referendum because he says it restores democratic control to those who voted to “take back control” from a remote Westminster. It also creates a dividing line between Nicola Sturgeon’s intention to make the general election about a second independence referendum and a UK-wide plan for economic, industrial and constitutional change. Replacing the House of Lords with an elected second Chamber (one weighted towards the regions and devolved nations) attempts to answer the growing mistrust between the public and politicians, which was the hallmark of the Johnson era.
However, there are clever politics at play. The report is just that: a report. It’s not a policy document and will be put out to consultation with broader society as part of a process to make the policy platform airtight before the election. It also distinguishes what can be achieved over one or two Parliamentary terms. Starmer has bought himself space to claim he has a blueprint for change while reserving the ability to change tac when circumstances dictate. It is unlikely, for example, that given the scale of the crisis in health care, voters will want the government to spend time reforming the House of Lords when they have to wait 12 hours to get seen in A&E. But Lords reform is now on the agenda which will help him build consensus amongst the liberal left and the broad church coalition any government needs.
There is still a long way to go before the election, which doesn’t need to be held until January 2025, and Labour will be under increasing scrutiny that comes with a 25% poll lead and being the bookies’ favourite to form the next government. If their plan proves to be hollow or if the Tories can apportion blame for industrial action at Starmer’s door, things may look very different come the spring. But now, it seems to be Labour’s election to lose.