ANDREW NEIL: This was Keir Starmer’s best speech yet, but we were left with the gnawing fear – Labour’s just not up to the job
It was probably Sir Keir Starmer’s best major speech to date as Labour leader, though that is not an especially high bar.
After 13 years of indifferent Tory rule and the palpable sense of a government past its sell-by date, it was good politics to trumpet a theme of national renewal. At a time when so much doesn’t seem to work in Britain, we could certainly do with it.
But however much Starmer tried to raise our horizons to the prospect of finer possibilities under Labour, we were dragged back to Earth by a persistent, gnawing fear: Labour is just not up to it.
Much of what Starmer proposed was good, solid, centrist stuff. His ambition was enervating. He is right to rekindle our spirits.
But beyond the party faithful, I doubt he will be able to dispel a general sense of foreboding that, within six months or a year of taking power, Labour will be disappointing on multiple fronts.
Labour party leader, Sir Keir Starmer delivers the leader’s speech, covered in glitter after a protestor stormed the stage on the third day of the Labour Party conference on October 10
Keir Starmer (R) is showered with glitter by a protester during his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, 10 October 2023
Consider the delivery team on which Starmer will have to depend to implement his plan for national renewal.
The current Tory cabinet is the least impressive of modern times. But the shadow cabinet, bar a couple of exceptions, is just as unimpressive, if not more so: the weakest Labour front bench in living memory, with talent, knowledge, experience, originality and dynamism in conspicuous short supply.
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Yet this is the team Starmer wants to match the reforming zeal and achievements of not one but all three of Labour’s greatest post-war administrations: Clement Attlee’s rebuilding of Britain after 1945, Harold Wilson’s efforts to modernise the country in the 1960s and Tony Blair’s mission to improve public services after his landslide victory in 1997.
I tell you, with the best will in the world, that is not going to happen.
Take the pledge to build 1.5 million new homes. It won Starmer the biggest cheer of the day in the Liverpool conference centre.
We could certainly do with more homes. The current Tory government has betrayed a generation of young people, for whom home ownership is but a pipe dream, with its failure to build enough.
But British governments have failed to meet far more modest house-building targets for decades. Why it would be any different under Starmer is not immediately clear.
Starmer says he’s going to build a raft of new towns, though where and when is as unclear as the timetable for his 1.5 million new homes.
Britain has built successful new towns in the past (and also a number of urban hellholes) but that was before draconian planning and environmental rules made most development a nightmare.
The Tories have consistently fallen foul of planning pushback and local resistance in their efforts to build 300,000 homes a year (a target this government has never met). Starmer says he needs two terms in power to realise his ambitions. I guarantee you this: even after a decade, not a single new town will be fully up and running.
Then there’s the plan for a state-owned Great British Energy company, meant to pave the way to a cornucopia of cheap renewable energy. It’s going to be based in Scotland, that part of Britain where state enterprise goes to die, whether it’s ferries for the Western Isles (years late, many millions over budget, still not delivered) or turning the treacherous A9 road through the Highlands into a dual carriageway (now unlikely ever to happen).
If Great British Energy really is the spear of Labour’s plan for plentiful energy, we should start preparing now for winter power cuts.
Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer is joined by his wife Victoria after delivering his keynote speech to the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. Picture date: Tuesday October 10, 2023
Starmer said the job of government was to help ‘shoulder the load’ for people, ‘not add to it’. A wise sentiment. Yet within minutes he was doubling down on all of Labour’s net zero targets for carbon emissions, which will add hugely to people’s financial load when it comes to everything from home heating to the cars they drive.
Once again rhetoric and reality will be two very different matters.
These days, Labour mentions reforming the NHS more than the Tories, which is encouraging, and Starmer talked more of the talk yesterday.
On the same basis that only President Richard Nixon, a Republican hawk, could make peace overtures to China in Chairman Mao’s day, so perhaps only Labour can undertake the radical reform the NHS needs. Exactly what reform would look like remains a mystery.
Starmer claimed the Tories had ‘brought our NHS to its knees’. But one of the few details we know about how he would improve it is his plan to tax non-doms (wealthy foreigners based in Britain who don’t pay tax on their non-British income) on their worldwide earnings.
Labour depends on a university study suggesting this would produce £3 billion a year in revenue, which Starmer would use to tackle waiting lists.
The Tories are currently spending £50 billion a year more on health than when they came to power in 2010. Just why an extra £3 billion would get the NHS off its knees is not easy to understand.
The £3 billion is likely a fantasy, anyway. There are other studies, including an unpublished Treasury report, which suggest taxing non-doms might generate no extra revenue at all because the non-doms, as mobile as they are rich, would simply up sticks and leave our shores for friendly tax climes. A number have already done that.
There are, perhaps, good reasons of equity and morality in taxing non-doms (they live in Britain and enjoy its benefits) — but as a source of extra revenue? Not really.
The same is true of the only other detailed Labour tax rise we know about — VAT on private schools. Again, this is meant to produce an extra couple of billion to spend on state schools. But if many families are forced to withdraw their kids from private schools they can no longer afford and send them to state schools, then the net gain could be very small indeed.
Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer delivers his keynote speech to the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool with his hands covered in glitter after a protester ran onto the stage
The substance of both tax rises is flimsy. But this is not about substance. It’s about class war. Starmer has moved his party quite dramatically towards the centre-Left since its days of Corbynista chaos. But he still has to throw the Labour Left the odd bone to chew. Hence taxing non-doms and private schools.
The fact that Rishi Sunak’s wife was a non-dom and he went to an elite and very expensive private school merely makes the bones even tastier.
Neither tax rise will make a blind bit of difference to the prospects of a future Labour government. But the rising cost of government borrowing will have a huge, and largely negative, impact on its aspirations. Curiously, Starmer made no mention of this in his speech.
Nor did his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves in her address the day before. She made it clear that Labour had big plans to borrow to invest. But she seemed oblivious to the fact that the days of cheap money are over and that the bond markets that governments borrow from are now demanding quite a premium from profligate politicians.
When the Corbynistas were drawing up their spending spree, interest rates were close to zero. So there was some economic rationale for it. These days the UK Government has to pay more than five per cent for investors to take its 30-year bonds. So borrowing to invest has become a lot more expensive — and the more governments borrow, the more the cost will rise.
Even the mighty safe-as-houses American government is paying almost five per cent to borrow long-term. The very bond market dynamics that derailed Liz Truss, who planned to borrow to cut taxes, will shake any Labour government that tries to borrow too much, even if it’s for public investment.
Many voters who have had enough of the Tories will feel it’s still worth taking a chance with Labour — and that’s understandable. Starmer accused the Tories of being out of touch with ordinary people — and there’s some justice in that, too.
But Starmer had a lot more to say about non-doms and net zero than he did about Brexit or strikes or immigration, suggesting that Sunak is not the only out-of-touch party leader.
I’ve just returned from America, where there is widespread dismay at the prospect of a Biden versus Trump match next year. But the more low-key choice we face in Britain — between a government that has disappointed and an opposition that is destined to disappoint — is hardly more inspiring.
It also suggests the outcome is not as pre-determined as fashionable opinion thinks.
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