The Road Ahead: Is Starmer a Fabian? What does his new essay tell us?

Sienna Rodgers
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When I interviewed Fabian Society general secretary Andy Harrop recently, I asked whether he considered Keir Starmer to be a very Fabian Labour leader. “Yes. In many ways, yes,” he replied. “Keir’s political backstory, his political life, is about doing and practicality, rather than about intellectual big ideas in the seminar room. So I think that makes him a bit different from central casting Fabian. But I think in terms of political positioning within the party, and the fact he’s got that very senior professional experience inside of government and Whitehall, that makes him feel like sort of a traditional Fabian.” He compared Ed Miliband, “an intellectual and an ideas man”, to the current Labour leader, who has a “slightly administrative approach to politics” and is more “practical”. This is the conversation I thought about when reading Starmer’s Fabians pamphlet.

While the Labour leader is mostly but not entirely Fabian, his essay is very much in keeping with the Fabian tradition, I think. The Road Ahead frames its ideas under the banner of a “contribution society”, and proposes ten principles for this approach, including an emphasis on “hard-working families”, the need to be “rewarded fairly” if you “work hard and play by the rules”, government being a “partner to private enterprise”, a rejection of “waste” in public spending, and the importance of being “proudly patriotic” but not engaging in “the divisiveness of nationalism”. These are Starmer’s lessons from the pandemic (a reaction to Tory failures during Covid), combined with a response to what he has heard from voters (a bid to improve Labour’s reputation on spending and security), plus a critique of the Scottish Nationalists.

What is new in the essay? Not a huge amount considering it is around 12,000 words long: it is really just an expanded version of Starmer’s first (online) conference speech. But repetition is not a problem, because there are only a few of us who read, watch and listen to Starmer’s views every day and therefore already know what he likes to talk about. There are many references to existing party policy, from a ‘new deal for working people’ and replacing Universal Credit to a long list of measures to tackle violence against women and girls. His rejection of a “narrow focus on university education” is to be expected but it is paired with a new, personal explanation of why all young people need the “soft skills” taught in private schools. Perhaps most of interest to readers is that he restates a commitment to “eliminate the substantial majority of carbon emissions by 2030”.

There will be lots more analysis and comment around the pamphlet on LabourList in the coming days. But dominant in Labour discussions at the moment is still those rule changes that Starmer appears intent on pursuing. I said in yesterday’s morning email that their success is up to the unions – and that still holds true, despite the fact that the proposals got a frosty reception at the leader’s meeting with trade union leaders and Starmer nonetheless intends to push forward with them. Labour conference is half affiliate, half local party delegates, and before then the unions are key to the ruling body (NEC) that must put forward these rule changes. Will unions continue to feel as if they are being bounced into rushed changes? Can their concerns over the costs and practicalities of a return to the electoral college be addressed so quickly? How far will the leadership go to strike a deal? We will know by Friday evening.

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