Home Economics Sir Keir Starmer on “Starmerism”

Sir Keir Starmer on “Starmerism”

Sir Keir Starmer on

GAlthough he has a good chance of becoming Britain’s next Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer remains oddly undefined. According to our poll tracker (see chart), the Labor Party has a 15 percentage point lead over the Tories. But those same polls show voters aren’t sure what he “stands for.” To critics left and right, he is an empty vessel, an opportunist who cycles through slogans and policies.

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That criticism is outdated. Speeches of the past few months increasingly clearly outline the contours of his approach. Speaking to The Economist during a campaign visit to Middlesbrough ahead of the May 4 local elections, Sir Keir offers his own definition of Starmerism. It puts him in line with other centre-left leaders who are trying to revive the idea of ​​”active” government in response to climate change and the plight of post-industrial cities.

There are two distinguishing elements. The first is an administrative critique: the British state is not only too big or too small, but simply ineffective. The answer is to align all government activity with five “missions”, to be pursued over two terms of a Labor government. “Starmerism is about the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’,” says Sir Keir.

The state is ineffective, Sir Keir argues, because it is both over-centralized in Whitehall and isolated between government departments. Even worse is a culture of short-termism and meager ambition. The “missions” – covering growth, the National Health Service (NHS), decarbonisation, crime and education – will have some bold goals, such as cutting serious violent crime in half and achieving the fastest sustained growth in the G7.

They will serve to triage all other policies. “Are we going to do A or B?” says Mr. Keir. “If the answer is that it helps with that mission, then the answer is yes. If the answer is no, then the answer is ‘no.'” Sue Gray, a former Whitehall official hired by the party, has been tasked with putting the missions into practice. But her appointment still requires official approval.

A focus on systems thinking comes naturally to Sir Keir. Lawyers normally go straight to parliament, but Sir Keir, once the rising star of the human rights bar, loathes the prime minister’s questions, the veneration of eloquence over speech and what he called the “wedge” policy of “division”, divide, divide, divide”. He is better understood as a bureaucrat who discovered he could be more influential to fix institutions from within. Earlier in his career he was a consultant to the Northern Ireland Police and then as reformist head of the Crown Prosecution Service The Labor Party, which he took charge of in 2020, was the most chaotic of them all.

Colleagues say he values ​​cultural change more than reorganizations, and rarely has a preconceived notion of reform. “He’s not iconoclastic; he’s not saying I’m going to break things up,” says a colleague. Others describe a “Merkel-esque” tendency to withhold decisions until the arguments for a particular course of action are overwhelming, before aggressively executing them. “There is very little chit-chat or small talk. He will go around the table at the shadow box and say, ‘What are you doing to deliver this? What are you doing to deliver this?” says another colleague.

The second strand of Starmerism is an embrace of what US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called “supply-side modern economics.” Social democracy is not possible with a small budget. Britain’s sluggish economy is undermining the welfare state Labor is so proud to have built. The Labor leader’s response is to focus on increasing the productive capacity of the economy – by streamlining the planning regime, by improving labor force participation, by mitigating the impact of Brexit and so on.

One goal predominates. “Economic growth is the absolute basis for everything,” says Sir Keir. Most importantly, that means providing a stable environment after a decade of political turmoil (which “makes for great political cartoons; it’s a disaster for the economy and investment.”) He says he’s “absolutely in step” with Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor.

Starmerism places a strong emphasis on stakeholderism: corporations, charities and wonks will become deeply entangled in policymaking and implementation. Sir Keir and Ms Reeves have met more than 1,000 business executives in a “smoked salmon offensive” according to his agency. It’s not just about improving the party’s image “but modeling how we would work in government,” he says.

The centerpiece of Labour’s economic agenda is a ‘green’ industrial strategy, consisting of £28bn a year in capital spending and the establishment of a state-owned energy company. It is inspired by the US Inflation Reduction Act, which includes an extensive package of green subsidies. Doesn’t Britain, trying to gain a foothold with America, risk returning to the failed industrial strategies of the past? Sir Keir says the program aims to unlock “private investment many times the amount we put into it” and focuses, for example, on critical growth stages in a company’s development. He emphasizes that the government should not “absorb” the role of the business community.

Labour, says Sir Keir, will change regulations to allow onshore wind farms and accelerate their connection to the national grid. “The government’s role is to remove those barriers,” he says. As for tackling nimbyism and expanding the housing supply, an area where the Tories are conspicuously lacking: “I think we need to address this,” he says. “It will take tough decisions.”

The biggest question chasing Labor is how much it is willing to spend, and by extension taxation, to improve public services. In Middlesbrough, Sir Keir encountered a group of nursing students who, in between selfies with the Labor leader, taunted him for low pay; usually he made no commitments. “In public services there is always the temptation to think that if you put more money at the top, you will necessarily get a better result,” he says. “You’re not going to get fundamentally different results if you’re not willing to do the change-and-reform part as well.”

Outsourcing and private facilities to clear backlogs in the NHS are back in demand; that was anathema to Jeremy Corbyn, Sir Keir’s predecessor. Healthcare needs to shift to prevention and more digitization to be sustainable. There will be internal resistance to any public service reform, he admits. “A lot of people will say ‘no, no, no, leave it as it is.’ Always the wrong answer.”

If Britons want European-style public services, shouldn’t they accept associated taxes? (Britain’s tax burden is expected to reach a post-war peak of 37.7% of GDP in 2027, but will still be below the Western European average.) Sir Keir says taxpayers are “really, really feeling the strain and its model “no it’s not about a massive change to the tax regime”. The tax reforms Labor has announced so far have been both small and attractive: they include the closing of exemptions for private schools, private equity bosses and non-domiciled taxpayers, with the proceeds going to doctors, nurses and teachers.

Does that herald an attack on the wealthy? “Quite the opposite. They are carefully calibrated decisions about certain tax loopholes. I, and Rachel, intend to resist the pull that so many people have on us: that the first place a Labor government goes, taxation is the first place the next Labor government will go is growth.”

Read a transcript of our interview with Sir Keir

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