Keir Starmer’s empty promise of British renewal

The Labour Party leader has pledged a great British rebirth, but appears to have no intention of delivering one.

Keir Starmer
British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer attends a Labour general election campaign event at Priestfield Stadium, in Gillingham, southeast Britain, on May 23, 2024 [Toby Melville/Reuters]

Recent British prime ministers have been routinely ambushed by reality. David Cameron didn’t see Brexit coming. Theresa May underestimated the appeal of Corbynism. Boris Johnson couldn’t handle COVID. Liz Truss was removed from office by the financial markets. In calling a snap general election for July 4 – one that he is certain to lose – Rishi Sunak has discovered that his political gifts aren’t quite as extensive as he thought they were. What, then, lies in wait for Sir Keir Starmer, the man destined to become the next occupant of Number 10 Downing Street?

The Labour leader has carefully positioned himself as a moderating force in United Kingdom politics; a stable, centrist alternative to 14 years of incumbent “Tory chaos”. For this, he has been rewarded with a 20-point poll lead and the prospect of a crushing summer rout of Conservative seats. One survey, published at the start of June, even indicated that he could win the largest Westminster majority of any British politician since Stanley Baldwin in 1924. But dispatching Sunak’s desperate and beleaguered right-wing government will be the easy part. Actually running Britain – a country recently characterised by The Financial Times as “poor” with “pockets of rich people” – will be much harder. Starmer doesn’t look even slightly up to the task.

Labour’s economic policy – the centrepiece of that opaque cluster of ideas collectively known as “Starmerism” – is a case in point. In a speech to the City of London in March, the party’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, set out what she saw as the primary drivers of British decay: the lowest productivity in the G7, a dearth of strategic investment, and long-term regional neglect. Reeves then hinted at a solution: a new “strategic partnership” between the state and the private sector, reform of the UK’s restrictive planning laws, and a national wealth fund to help channel cash into industrially deprived areas.

Yet, in the same speech, Reeves failed to acknowledge the central role played by the City of London itself in amplifying the UK’s abnormally high rates of regional inequality. Instead, she lauded the British capital’s “world-leading professional and financial services”, pausing only to acknowledge the damage banking sectors can cause to national economies when left “under-regulated.” The omission was revealing. For decades, the City has acted as a vortex for domestic British investment, draining wealth away from the country’s peripheries – Northern England, Central Scotland, South Wales – and redirecting it towards the asset-rich English South East. Or, just as often, out of the UK altogether and into offshore tax havens.

Naturally, the social effects of this system have been devastating. According to the consulting firm EY, London and its surrounding regions – which are booming – will account for a full 40 percent of the UK’s economic growth by 2027. The rest of Britain, meanwhile, will continue down the path of Tory stagnation. Under the Conservatives, spending cuts hit poor northern cities twice as hard as they did prosperous southern ones, amplifying health inequalities and pushing local services to the limit. As the party has made clear, Labour might mitigate these cuts, but it won’t reverse them – in the next parliament, budgetary discipline will take priority over social democratic largesse. As if to underline the point, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the UK’s spending watchdog, estimates that, in the absence of substantial tax hikes, savings of up to £16 billion ($20bn) will be needed to eliminate Britain’s deficit over the coming years, regardless of who takes power on July 4. Bringing the UK’s day-to-day spending into balance is one of Labour’s economic goals. “We will not waver from strong fiscal rules,” Reeves – for six years, an economist at the Bank of England – warned in March.

On this, at least, Starmer has been true to his word. In February, Labour ditched its flagship pledge to spend £28 billion per year on a “green investment plan”. In its place, Starmer unveiled a more modest commitment: £5 billion per year, by 2028/29, to decarbonise the UK economy. Environmental groups condemned the U-turn. Labour had “caved like a house of cards in the wind” to pressure from the climate-denying right, said Areeba Hamid of Greenpeace. But the shift was inevitable. Starmer, anxious about the softness of Labour’s support, wants to limit the space for Tory attack lines. At the same time, four years after replacing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, he remains determined to expunge any trace of Corbyn’s influence from within his party’s ranks.

Starmer’s assault on the Labour left has produced a bonfire of progressive policies. His initial vows to scrap university tuition fees, raise taxes on top earners, nationalise Britain’s price-gouging energy companies, and end the incremental privatisation of the NHS have all been jettisoned or watered down. So, too, has his promise to abolish the House of Lords, the single largest unelected legislative chamber anywhere in the Western world.

Speaking to The Guardian in 2022, Starmer was emphatic: dissolving the Lords, an institution stuffed full of “Tory lackeys and donors”, would “restore trust” in the British state. “People have lost faith in the ability of politicians to bring about change,” he said. “As well as fixing our economy, we need to fix our politics.” By the middle of last year, however, repairing Britain’s broken political model had slipped down Starmer’s agenda. “Constitutional [reform] takes time and drains energy,” Thangam Debbonaire, a senior Starmer ally, told The i Newspaper in June 2023. “We’ve got a lot to do to fix a country where nothing works from getting a passport to fixing potholes.”

Starmer and his team are right to argue that the Conservatives have left Britain in a mess. From Cameron’s austerity cuts to Truss’s market-spooking fiscal experiments, the UK is a poorer, weaker, and more divided place now than it was a decade and a half ago. And yet, despite shedding virtually every policy capable of addressing Britain’s problems, Starmer has actually grown more, not less, grandiose as the race for Number 10 has progressed. It is time to “turn the page” on Tory decline and embrace “a decade of national renewal with Labour,” he has said repeatedly since Sunak kickstarted the campaign in May. Such rhetoric is not new. In 1997, Tony Blair, celebrating his landmark election victory over the Conservatives, asked and answered his own question: “A new dawn has broken, has it not? And it is wonderful.”

But it wasn’t wonderful. By the time Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, resigned in 2010, inaugurating the most recent stretch of Tory rule, New Labour had become synonymous with three things: Iraq, corruption, and financial collapse. The UK didn’t flourish during the Blair-Brown era, it fractured, shifting the national doom loop back into gear. Starmer – a former director of public prosecutions – is a far less ambitious figure than Blair, and shares none of Blair’s disruptive vision. He has pledged a great British rebirth but has no intention of delivering one. Reality lies in wait for the next Labour government. Decline is Britain’s reality.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.