“Change our party to change Britain”: Starmer speaks to ‘Progressive Britain’

Sienna Rodgers
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

Keir Starmer has declared that Labour must “change our party to change Britain” and made the case that “transformative, modernising” change will be brought about by an active Labour government in partnership with business.

Following a difficult week dominated by reports of party infighting and coverage of Labour’s poor election results, the leader offered insights into how he would reach out to voters and enact internal reforms in the coming months.

Starmer was addressing the conference this morning of Labour organisation Progress, which was founded in 1996 to support Tony Blair’s New Labour leadership. It was relaunched today as ‘Progressive Britain’ with Policy Network.

“Describing the change you want to bring about is fine – you know, the vision. The really key question is how you actually bring it about,” Starmer said. He told the conference that losing Hartlepool was a “bitter disappointment”.

On the ‘Red Wall’, he added: “We do need to win those seats back. There is no route back to power without winning those seats back, nor should we aspire to win power without winning those seats back. We do need to have an answer for the so-called Red Wall.”

He noted that Deborah Mattinson had been hired, saying: “If anybody knows about the Red Wall, she absolutely does.” He also warned, “don’t think it’s all one mindset”, as in Wales pro-Brexit voters came back to Labour but in Hartlepool they did not.

Starmer suggested he would focus on the economy (“there is a window of opportunity here”, he said, pledging to work with business leaders) and on bringing decisions “closer to people” with strategic plans for regions.

He also said he wants to change the culture of “division” in the country to one based on “our values of empathy, of standing together, of support”. He said when asked where he is on the political spectrum, he replies that he is “forward-looking”.

Starmer said: “We have to get the offer right going into the next general election. Nobody is going to do it for us. We can’t hug someone from the past, some historical figure, and say all we need is ‘X’. We’ve got to do it, the hard work is on us.”

The opposition leader revealed further details of the Labour policy review led by Anneliese Dodds, who was removed from the Shadow Chancellor role a week ago, including that it would not use previous manifestos as a starting point.

Starmer told the conference that he was interested in “answering the questions of the future”, adding: “You don’t go through a review like this by picking up the last document.”

On the policy review, he said: “One thing I’m not going to do is let process get in the way of good ideas. If good ideas are coming thick and fast, they will come into this review by hook or by crook…

“What we’re not doing is simply gathering up thoughts and then trying to write something that reflects those thoughts. Because we need transformative and modernising change.”

Acknowledging the extent of the damage done by a reshuffle entangled in a Labour briefing war, Starmer said: “There’s no pretending the last week has been a pleasant experience for any of us, or a good one for the Labour Party.”

He said he wanted Angela Rayner in a “more front-facing role” and “we’ve succeeded in that”. The deputy leader is no longer party chair or campaign coordinator, but now Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work.

Starmer also highlighted other positives from the reshuffle: that he wanted Dodds as chair of the policy review, Rachel Reeves as Shadow Chancellor, Shabana Mahmood in the campaign post and Wes Streeting in the shadow cabinet.

“We got there, and now we face the future with a much stronger and better-placed team,” the Labour leader said. “The way we did it wasn’t the best and there’s no getting away from that.”

Setting out his plans for the future, Starmer said: “I’m certainly going to spend the summer out in different communities, having discussions about the future. What I mean by that is not just half-day visits but going for two or more days to a particular place.”

He reiterated that the leadership wants to engage with voters who have turned away from Labour. “I don’t want a room full of the faithful, clapping, et cetera. I actually want to spend my time talking to people who are not voting Labour.”

Progressive Britain has said it will be a “platform for imaginative thinking”, dedicated to “the intellectual revitalisation of the centre-left” and aiming to “stimulate fresh thinking” about domestic and foreign policy challenges.

Nathan Yeowell, executive director of Progressive Britain, said: “Last Thursday’s election results were a wake-up call for the Labour Party. Keir Starmer needs to bring about fundamental change if we are to rebuild our relationship with the nation.

“We’ve launched Progressive Britain to provide the spark and challenge that is missing from the Labour Party: an opportunity to bring some intellectual heft back into progressive politics, hammer out who we are and what we want to do, and get back on the front foot after more than a decade of defeat.”

Below is the full text of Progressive Britain’s launch statement.

Today we are launching Progressive Britain – a platform for imaginative thinking that aims to rebuild the nation. Rooted in the Labour Party, Progressive Britain will be dedicated to the intellectual revitalisation of the centre-left in the United Kingdom. It will stimulate fresh thinking about the policy challenges facing us at home and abroad, whilst championing the revival of progressive social democracy.

The seismic shocks and crashes of the past decade have fragmented our politics and undermined both our national and local institutions. Meanwhile, disruptive forces, from technological change and automation to the climate emergency, undermine social cohesion and threaten levels of poverty and inequality not seen in years. Political, social and economic instability has led to polarisation and the growth of xenophobic nationalism and extremism. If we do not act, the vision of an open, tolerant and progressive Britain, anchored in the radical centre-left of politics, might be lost for a generation.

Our aim is to forge a broad-based post-Brexit, post-pandemic settlement for the future of the United Kingdom, a programme of national and local renewal that tackles deep-rooted structural inequalities and injustice. We believe the task of social democratic politics is to set out a new compact – where the state takes a proactive role in shaping an economy that delivers sustainable and inclusive growth with opportunities and security for all.

The inability, if not unwillingness, of our current institutions to promote such a settlement means the leadership and heavy-lifting must come from beyond – and below – Westminster and Whitehall. We believe there is a once in a generation opportunity for Progressive Britain to become the intellectual driving force for political change and reconciliation. For this process of renewal to be a success, it requires the active involvement of citizens and local communities; local, devolved and national politicians; policymakers, businesses and trade unions.

We think that Labour and the centre-left require fundamental reconstruction. We have to stop taking for granted that voters will stick with Labour because of ancestral loyalties. And we can’t get drawn into Conservative attempts to create ‘culture wars’, division and competition between different parts of the country. Our work must be to knit together new coalitions by focusing on the big things that can really change Britain and make people’s lives better. Most people want good public services, decent work, safe housing, opportunities for their families and to feel proud of the places they live. A Green New Deal is inspiring for those who care about the climate crisis, and it means lower fuel bills for those struggling to get by. By focusing on the big things that connect people we can learn to win again. 

Our vision must also be internationalist. The pandemic has underlined the fundamental interdependence of our societies and we must learn from the experience of social democratic and progressive forces in Europe, the Unites States and beyond.

The best hope for progressives in preventing a prolonged period of Conservative dominance lies with the long-term revival of the Labour Party. Labour in power changes lives – we have seen this in the consolidation of power in Wales – and only Labour can defeat the Tories in England and offer a plausible governing alternative in Scotland. To achieve this task requires the organisational and political revitalisation of the party. Labour’s continuing difficulties are not because it has changed too much, but because it hasn’t changed enough to respond to the social and economic challenges that face the country and the wider world. We need a sustained effort to reimagine our policies and win the battle for a Progressive Britain.

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