Keir Starmer's New Year Speech Keir Starmer's New Year Speech. Photo: Labour Party / YouTube / CC BY 3.0

Starmer’s pitch to voters fails to offer a change of direction from Tory policy where it really matters, argues Terina Hine

The country is in crisis and millions of people are struggling. Starmer says Westminster’s ‘sticking plasters’ are not working, but Labour’s soundbite appropriation won’t be much help either.

Both Starmer’s and Sunak’s New Year speeches failed to provide the answers the country so desperately needs. As opening salvos for the 2024 general-election campaign, the party leaders showed a complete absence of vision, their speeches were vacuous, policy light, and punctuated by endless soundbites. In Starmer’s case the key soundbite was not even his.

Starmer told his audience that Labour’s first act in government will be to ‘take back control’, three words stolen from a campaign he so vehemently opposed. He name-checked the red wall, leave voting battlegrounds of Grimsby, Swindon, Burnley and Wolverhampton, making play for constituencies the party lost in 2019, forgetting a major reason for the loss was of his making: his blind pursuit of a second referendum and vicious demonisation of Corbyn.

The ‘take back control’ bill was initially trailed in the run up to Christmas, and is based on Gordon Browns devolution proposals. The bill will supposedly address the concerns of leave voters, providing opportunities for levelling up (another appropriated Tory soundbite) by placing increased power in the hands of locally elected officials.

Devolved power over transport, energy, employment support, climate change, housing, culture and childcare provision is undoubtedly a good thing and should be supported. England is after all one of the most centralised countries in Europe. But without financial resources, devolved power is meaningless. It hardly matters who controls public services if those services remain unfunded, except perhaps that blame for cuts falls locally rather than on central government.

Shadowing Tory austerity

And Starmer has made it abundantly clear that more money is not forthcoming. He warned Labour would not get out its ‘big government cheque book’ and would instead opt for a revamped ‘partnership model’ between the state and private sector. It seems Labour plans a return to austerity and just like Blair, Starmer appears set to follow Tory spending plans.

At least in the Q&A Starmer confirmed he would repeal any further anti-strike laws the government introduces, but he and his shadow cabinet remained mealy-mouthed when it came to Labour’s stance on public-sector pay. Yet all the while, living standards are falling, the NHS is dying, housing is unaffordable, and public services are on crisis footing. Fiddling with constitutional matters while the country falls apart seems a strange way to make a bid for government. Packaging it as ‘taking back control’ may have electoral advantages, if the packaging is believed, but it will not resolve the crisis.

As with the Prime Minister’s address (weirdly at the same location, just 24 hours earlier), there was nothing to relieve today’s pain, felt by millions of hard-pressed families and workers. There was nothing on how to help with the cost of living, with energy bills, with falling wages or with housing. There was nothing for the young, except a warning they should not rely on Labour to keep its pledge on abolishing tuition fees.

Instead there was waffle, a lack of detail, and no vision. There was plenty of well-placed blame for the current mess: yes, parliament is too focussed on the short term, yes, the Tories have had thirteen years of failure, yes, we have all suffered from the Tory psychodrama of the last few years. But what would Labour do differently? Be more professional, and less bogged down by sleaze, great, but there needs to be more.

Labour bigwigs are divided: some want Starmer to be more radical, others, like Peter Mandelson, want him to remain cautious and rely on the collapse of the Tories to win power. Mandelson has even advised against focussing too much on green issues. But the polls, which currently give Labour a stonking majority, also give relatively strong personal ratings to Sunak against Starmer as PM; there is little room for complacency.

Keir Starmer has failed to address the central questions facing the country: questions around the failing economy, productivity, living standards and most crucially of all, our collapsing public services. It seems Westminster is no longer even offering sticking plasters.

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