By Thomas Judge
TWO years into Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party, he is not the leftist in a lawyers guise he pitched himself to be in early 2020.
For the last two years, MPs on the left of the party have all but disappeared from the Shadow Cabinet, the former proudly socialist leader has been kicked out, and key policies have been walked back, or language softened significantly.
There is no reason to believe Starmer’s Labour is about to pitch radical policy to the general public, but it should.
One of the most disappointing things about Keir Starmer in 2021, and there are many to choose from, is his reaction to the still ongoing energy crisis.
Stemming from various factors – gas supply, the UK’s old infrastructure and even low winds – wholesale energy prices in the UK shot up.
Due to limits on how much companies can hike prices on customers, scores of suppliers went out of business as they couldn’t meet consumer demand given the costs they paid for energy.
This deficit has meant that the UK’s big six energy companies – British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, Npower, Scottish Power, and SSE – have gained more market share as when smaller energy companies go bust, customers will most likely be redistributed to them. Despite caps, consumers saw price rises and already high household costs pinched even harder.
Given this crisis, and the notion that energy supply could be in jeopardy, the idea of nationalising the big six energy companies, a key Corbyn era policy, was re-floated. But when asked whether he would do this, Starmer said no in an interview with Andrew Marr.
It was the most significant break with the facade that Starmer had made over policy to date, having run for the leadership on the left wing policy platform, just in the guise of someone more palatable to the public.
In the alternate universe where Starmer led this way, this would have been the perfect opportunity to advocate for the nationalisation of energy as the best way to protect consumers from market volatility and bring down household bills, which have been squeezed as wage growth is outpaced by inflation.
But Starmer completely missed the opportunity. The comments on Marr led to more infighting between various factions on the left and even highlighted a rift with people like Ed Miliband, who early that week had said he would support nationalisation as part of a Green New Deal package.
The ideas that Labour has put forward instead are also incredibly forgettable, a cut in VAT on energy to bring prices down, potentially funded by previous taxes on energy companies.
This isn’t a far cry from a bail out – more people able to pay bills on time would mean more companies stay afloat, propping up a failing market with public money. Labour advocating for socialising profit and privatising profit is not a good look.
Converse to what the centre-ground believes; the public supports more radical measures. The polling is very much in favour of this. YouGov, which regular polls on this question, shows (on December 13, 2021) that a combined 59 per cent of people either strongly support or tend to support bringing energy companies back into public ownership. Even more starkly, only 3 per cent strongly oppose, and 10 per cent tend to oppose (combined for 13 per cent) nationalisation.
The idea isn’t just the best option from an ideological point of view but an electoral point of view.
And if the idea is to win over Conservative voters, the numbers hardly budge when looking at it by voting partisan, with just 18 per cent opposing and 60 per cent supporting. There’s not an insignificant amount of ‘don’t knows’ there, 27 per cent, and this energy crisis could have been an opportunity to convince more of them that this is a good policy.
The same is true of bringing rail back into public control (59 per cent support to 12 per cent oppose), polled at the end of November 2021.
And this has been true of numerous industries that used to be public-owned, including mail, water and other public transport, for some time now. Supporting these issues makes sense now – it’s not even that flashy anymore.
The Conservatives have even capitulated on this to a certain extent. Northern, the most profoundly unpopular rail franchise, has been brought back under government control, and the franchise model will be changed (although how different it will be in actuality is yet to be seen). More transformative policies – like moving to a four day work week or a pilot scheme for Universal Basic Income – have had considerable majority support.
For example, the four-day week had 60 per cent explicitly supporting the idea as opposed to 26 per cent against in a poll conducted by Savanta:Com Res in October. Building momentum around ideas like this over the years until the next general election is the real way to build a coalition of voters that can take the party into government.
Keir Starmer fails to cut through. It’s coming up on two years into his leadership, and nobody knows what he stands for or what they would be getting if they put him in power.
It’s clear the idea of making him as an individual trusted by the public, then hanging policies of him at the last minute isn’t working. The strategy failed for Theresa May in 2017 and less notably failed for Jo Swinson in 2019.
Shadow Cabinet reshuffles and constant relaunches aren’t going to cut it, but advocating for progressive policy will give people ideas to remember and vote for in time. And not in two years (or whenever the next general election is) but now.
Being caught off guard with a slew of offerings with less than six weeks before putting a cross in a box isn’t going to work. Building public consensus around these ideas now may even help drown out some of the culture war topics cooked up by the right-wing press because time has to be spent engaging with political alternatives.
Coming out with some progressive ideas would truly reset Starmer’s leadership – another new slogan isn’t going to cut it.
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