The road to Starmerism: neither Blairite nor Corbynite, but unifying for Labour

Andrew Harrop
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Throughout the long history of the Fabians, the society has been one of the key places where Labour leaders come to define their vision. In pamphlets, articles and speeches, they have sketched out the future they want for Britain. 

Keir Starmer’s pamphlet The Road Ahead continues that tradition. In setting out his vision of “the contribution society”, Starmer is following in the footsteps of many of his predecessors in defining a roadmap that will shape Labour’s policy ideas and political messages for years to come.

In recent days, the party has once again been talking about itself. But Starmer’s pamphlet is not an inward-looking document. The Road Ahead explains to the public at large in practical terms who Keir Starmer is and what he stands for. The aim is to help Labour reconnect with voters who are not currently considering the party by showing them that Starmer and his Labour Party embody the best of the nation’s values.

The central point of the pamphlet is that Britain faces a choice between a country led by a Labour leader committed to equality, security, responsibility and collective action – or incompetence, selfishness, atomisation, cronyism and free-market dogma under the Tories. 

As you’d expect, there’s a robust critique of the last ten years of Conservative rule. But most of the focus is on the bright future the Labour path can bring. This is the right approach and I hope the party will continue to embody this sense of optimism – rightly opposing the Tories where needed, but always with an offer of something better.

Starmer’s central idea, the ‘contribution society’, is inspired by the best of Britain seen during the pandemic: the extraordinary, selfless responses of neighbours and communities, the power of collectively-organised public services to serve and protect, and the huge potential when government and business work together. He sees in these responses to the pandemic a way to show how Labour’s commitment to common endeavour is in step with a strong, proud and patriotic Britain. 

The pamphlet draws a clear dividing line between Labour’s inclusive patriotism and the nationalism of the Tories and SNP. The difference is that patriotism serves to bring together people who are different while nationalism polarises. Starmer is contemptuous of dividing-line politics, including the made-up ‘culture war’ controversies, which he labels “absurd”.

In some of the language, there are echoes of the New Labour years. The pamphlet’s discussion of contribution and responsibility is a reminder of the mantra of rights and responsibilities under Tony Blair. But Starmer applies this framework to business, not just people, in a way that seldom happened under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The tone is pro-business and Starmer offers a new partnership with the private sector. But this comes with hard-edged demands and expectations about the contribution companies must make.

A business-friendly Labour Party will invest in infrastructure and skills, support firms expand and help create good jobs. But companies must take responsibility – to serve society, tackle climate change and be good employers. Proof-points for this approach include a highly ambitious goal to slash carbon emissions and the party’s new commitment to extending rights at work. 

The huge package of new employment rights proposed by Starmer in recent weeks shows how his roadmap could lead to big change in people’s day-to-day lives. His plan goes further than the employment proposals of any Labour leader, with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn, and is leaps and bounds from what Blair or Brown were able or willing to contemplate. This is a Labour Party that wants to promote labour and union rights. 

While observers will seek to contrast Starmer’s vision with the Corbyn years, it also represents a break from when Labour was last in power. The big difference to Corbyn is that while he and John McDonnell used the language of radicalism and rupture, the presentation here is reassuring: Starmer’s promise is that Labour will renew security in every aspect of people’s lives. As England’s former chief prosecutor, safety on the streets has a strong place in the programme, with a particular focus on security for women and girls. 

The Road Ahead shows that ‘Starmerism’ is neither Blairite nor Corbynite. There are echoes of many past incarnations of Labour, but this is a plan focused on the future and rooted in the immediate lessons of the pandemic. The ‘contribution society’ offers a patriotism that rejects nationalism, a fair-minded but demanding partnership with business, and a vision of a society where there is opportunity for all and security for all – at home, on the street and in the workplace. It is a roadmap the Labour Party can unite around.

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