I was told by aides last year that Keir Starmer has a very clear plan for the first years of his leadership. In his mind, there are stages in how he approaches the opposition leader role. This methodical style was illustrated in the way that he started off expressing support for the government amid the Covid crisis, then gradually turned up the dial on criticism alongside those ‘constructive opposition’ statements in a bid to ensure that Labour attacks are taken seriously. (Only calling for ‘realistic’ policies follows the same logic.)
This week, in his first speech of 2021, the Labour leader moved to the next stage of his plan. “As we start the new year, we need a new approach,” he said. He wasn’t only talking about the government’s handling of coronavirus. After making the case that the government has repeatedly made avoidable mistakes, he told us that its policies during the crisis show that “the government isn’t just incompetent but also that it has the wrong priorities”.
Starmer used the speech not just to criticise but to set out some of Labour’s vision for the country. He repeated the new tagline for the party: making sure this is “the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”. He used ‘the family’ as a framing device. He also talked about his dad as a toolmaker, using his personal experiences to communicate that Labour understands the value of business.
He also spelled out Labour’s own priorities: four specific policies, as detailed in yesterday’s email, covering council tax, Universal Credit, fair pay and evictions/repossessions. Those close to the leadership acknowledge that this is not a comprehensive account of all that is needed right now, but these key focuses are pitch-rolling for the year, which is expected (so far) to feature a bumper set of local elections.
Starmer listed Labour’s three priorities as securing the economy, protecting the NHS, and rebuilding Britain. The speech on Monday established the direction of travel in the first, which combines two weak points for the party – security and the economy.
Labour’s task here is being made somewhat easier by the government insisting that Covid contracts should be handed out to companies not providing value for money, as seen in the latest example of free school meals and similarly earlier in the crisis in the food boxes for those shielding. Rather than questions of what constitutes ‘local’, which is not a legal requirement anyway, let this story take the lead this week.Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.