‘Starmerism is about fixing the failures of not only Corbynism, but Blairism too’

When campaigning to be Labour leader Keir Starmer did not want to be identified with Tony Blair.

He famously declared: “I don’t need somebody else’s name tattooed on  my head to know what I think”. His party was to be a broad church, embracing members of Momentum – as well as Blairites. 

As Jeremy Corbyn can affirm, a lot has changed since 2020. Starmer has assumed an iron grip on the party machine, thanks to supporters on the National Executive Committee doing their best to exclude those unwilling to sing from the leader’s hymn sheet.

Moving on from Corbynism

Starmer has also rowed back from various radical policy pledges made when courting members’ support to replace Corbyn. This has led the likes of Sharon Graham and John McDonnell to claim that the party has almost become a Blair tribute act. Those on the left would not have been reassured when, once safely leader, Starmer began to openly declare his pride in what New Labour achieved in office and appear on platforms with an admiring Blair. 

But what few will have noticed – because he did not care to elaborate, and journalists were not interested enough to probe – is that Starmer has noted that the Blair governments made mistakes. The Labour leader’s questioning of the legal basis for the Iraq War is well known. 

But as someone encouraged to become a Labour parliamentary candidate by Ed Miliband – widely criticised by Blairites for being ‘anti-business’ – and who hoped to serve in that never-to-be Miliband government, it is likely he has many more. 

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Indeed, while some see his leadership as defined by the desire to distance Labour from Corbynism it has also been shaped by the imperative to address some of the negative consequences of Blairism. 

When Blair entered Downing Street in 1997 his mission was relatively simple. Public services were ailing but the economy was growing so by disavowing tax cuts money could be relatively easily found to improve schools and the NHS. 

But if he finessed the economic model established by Margaret Thatcher Blair remained convinced that continuing to liberate the globalised free market was the key to prosperity and fairness. The main job of government was to get out of the way. As a result, and despite Gordon Brown creating an Enterprise and Growth Unit in the Treasury, productivity and investment in the British economy continued to lag behind its main competitors

Legacy of New Labour

Since the 2008 financial crash and Conservative austerity (which Blair enthusiastically supported) as well as a Brexit vote significantly fuelled by resentment of a mass EU immigration New Labour had encouraged, investment has further declined, productivity consequently got worse, so growth has become problematic and public services as a result on the verge of collapse. 

But while – for understandable electoral reasons – Labour figures during this election campaign are loudly blaming those Conservatives who have been in government since 2010 for these problems, their roots can all be traced back to the New Labour years. 

That has been implicitly recognised by Starmer’s Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, whose recent Mais Lecture announced that an incoming Labour government would set out on a new course from the one that all governments since Thatcher (and that of course includes the Blair-Brown years) have followed. 

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In the pursuit of growth, on which properly funded public services depend, an unqualified faith in globalisation is out, and active government in. Instead of letting free markets take their own course, government will ‘shape’ them through an industrial strategy that will invest public funds in dynamic manufacturing sectors designed to unlock private money.

As part of this process Labour will establish a new British Infrastructure Council, create a National Wealth Fund and establish the state-run Great British Energy. 

There remain awkward questions regarding Labour’s tax and spending plans once in government. But Starmer’s ambition is to lead a new economic consensus to replace the one established by Thatcher and continued by Blair and Brown and those many Conservative Prime Ministers who came after. 

Priorities for Starmer

In so doing Stamer hopes to rebuild Labour’s relationship with those lost Red Wall voters, one that Blair took for granted. These were apparently instinctive Labour voters whose support could be banked while Blair won elections by making himself acceptable to floating Conservative voters in the south. 

Improved public services – a clear New Labour achievement – did not compensate for failing to address the deindustrialisation of countless towns in the north and midlands whose drift away from the party only accelerated during the Miliband and Corbyn periods.

Going beyond standing next to flags, Starmer has made it his business – in a mirror image of the New Labour strategy – to focus on their concerns about flat-lining real incomes, economic insecurity and immigration. As the outgoing MP Jon Cruddas – hardly Starmer’s biggest fan – remarked in his new book A Century of Labour, this is a bold strategy. 

Perhaps being truer to Starmer’s presentation of himself during his campaign to become Labour leader – as neither a follower of Corbyn nor Blair – than he might have ever imagined, the man about to become Prime Minister intends to reverse both Britain’s economic, and Labour’s political, decline by addressing the failures of Corbynism – and Blairism. 

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