As an Arsenal fan, it’s no surprise that Keir Starmer can’t help comparing his team’s fate to that of the Labour party. Following years of failure, the red team finally has its nose in front of its rivals, yet its supporters still pinch themselves. In politics as in sport, it’s often the hope that kills you.
But with Labour a consistent 20 points ahead of the Tories in the polls, Starmer looks more than ever like a confident player. He carries the swagger of a goalmouth poacher, while counting himself lucky at the sheer number of own goals and defensive lapses of his opponents.
As he opened his big speech in Manchester, Starmer couldn’t resist the football analogies about teamwork, excellence and a desire to win on and off the pitch.
And as he unveiled his “five national missions” for a Labour government, just weeks after Rishi Sunak’s “five priorities” for 2023, their game of political five-a-side looks and sounds like the start of the longest election campaign for years.
His five missions for the UK – higher growth, a repaired and reformed NHS, safer streets, more opportunity and green energy superpower status – were sensible enough and had the right mix of ambition and process.
Offering a road map to the election manifesto, with more detailed targets in coming months, this was all about yet more building blocks for the main political mission of presenting Labour as a government-in-waiting. We hacks may be frustrated by the lack of detail, but he clearly isn’t fussed.
It was almost a testimony to how uncontroversial Starmer’s “missions” were that most of the attention in the Q&A afterwards focused on his previous pledges in the 2020 Labour leadership race. With few of the public knowing or caring about those party promises, again, he sounds unconcerned.
As for the policy big picture, some in Labour may want to pitch Starmer’s missions as a 21st century reboot of the “five giants” that the Beveridge Report set out to tackle in the 1940s (“idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want”).
The lack of any explicit reference to housing is clearly a weakness, but with ambitious new policies like green energy and childcare, Starmer may be hoping to present himself as a reasonable revolutionary in the mould of Clement Attlee back in 1945.
It’s the hope of a fresh landslide that is clearly putting a spring in Labour’s step right now, a point underlined by Starmer’s hints that it will take a two-term government to hit his ambitions.
Many of those around the leader are acutely aware that Tory governments have an uncanny knack of bouncing back from huge mid-term polling deficits. Some MPs are sharing a recent downbeat verdict by Jamie Kanagasooriam – the man who invented the term “Red Wall” – which suggests that on metrics like voter expectations and leadership ratings, Labour may be heading for a minority rather than majority government.
The real hope of those around Starmer is that he can offer a positive reason to vote Labour as well as harnessing all the negatives of the past 13 years of Tory rule. Yet after the Trussonomics disaster, they know that voters prefer reassurance to radicalism and that any change has to be done at the right pace. His line about the need for “certainty and change…stability and success” captured that tension without resolving it.
Starmer’s team need to pull off the trick not just of Clem Attlee but of Joe Biden. The US president won power with a promise of “boring” political stability after the wild Trump years, but followed up with a revolutionary expansion of green jobs that can win him working class and middle class votes alike.
And in any “battle of the borings” between Sunak and Starmer, the PM suffers from the huge handicap of the decade-long Tory record of anaemic growth. His personal ratings have also fallen steadily since he took office and may get worse.
For many, real radicalism lies not in tax cuts or grand promises, but in getting the basics right. The apparently “little things” – securing an affordable childcare place, getting a hip-op, having a warm, affordable home – are the big things that most people just want their government to deliver.
The striker’s ring of confidence that Starmer now possesses was underlined when he said that if the Tories want to pit his five missions against Sunak’s five priorities, there was an easy way to find out: hold a general election.
The Labour leader will never be a great orator or story teller, but the mood of the nation seems to be for a realist not a raconteur. Most crucially of all, Starmer’s political superpower is that he simply doesn’t scare many voters – and that ought to scare the Tories.
In the south, Starmer’s non-threatening prospectus paves the way for liberal conservatives to flock to the Lib Dems in a way most were terrified of doing in 2015, 2017 and 2019. In the north and midlands, the fact that he is not Jeremy Corbyn (and Sunak certainly isn’t Boris Johnson) could return most of the “Red Wall” to its original colour.
One of the most potent weapons in British politics is not a soaring vision but an ability to just sound reasonable, decent and competent.
The electoral gold dust from focus groups is not when participants say “oh, they’re amazing”, it’s when they say “well, they can’t do any worse than the current lot” or “let’s give them a go”. That may not sound inspiring, but it can be a sign of shifting tectonic plates that create landslides.
While Labour may talk about a “mission-driven government”, it’s just as likely to be a permission-driven government, with the public simply saying they deserve a shot after the Conservatives have been in power for so long and through so many different leaders.
Starmer inadvertently put his finger on this in his speech when he asked why the UK couldn’t be a world leader in offshore wind, in quantum computing or DNA-led medicine. “Why not Britain?” he asked. The voters seem to be saying “Why not Labour?” And so far, the Tories have no answer.