Keir Starmer has caught the public mood. Now he can shape the political argument

Figcaption Keir Starmer Has Caught The Public Mood. Now He Can Shape The Political Argument
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

I t’s society, stupid. First, more than a decade ago, a banking crisis that would have brought the economy down without the £1tn in capital injections, asset guarantees and vast infusions of Bank of England cash into the banking system. Now a pandemic that will cumulatively cost another £1tn in extra borrowing, emergency lending and a doubling of cash from the Bank. Without deploying societal resources of £1tn twice over, the country would have succumbed to a collapse on an unimaginable scale.

Both crises have libertarianism at their root: a banking system allowed to run amok and a pandemic whose spread has been intensified by gross social inequalities and fatal hesitancy about exerting state authority. Yet a Conservative government, its hand forced by events, has had to throw all we have at it in order to overcome a threat that menaces everyone. Denial of the primacy of society in the name of libertarianism kills.

We are relearning the lessons of the 19th century. Travellers from the south reported that the fast-industrialising towns of the north could be smelled from miles away. The creaking systems for disposing of human waste from cesspits, without any sewerage system, incubated disease – cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis – made worse by scarcely breathable air and polluted water from parish pumps. The middle class took care to live on the west side of towns so the prevailing westerly winds would blow the disease, stench and pollution into the slums in the east. The conditions of work in factories and mines were indescribable; too many children grew up unschooled. There had to be societal intervention.

The second half of the 19th century, in which Britain was led by Liberal governments in office for twice as many years as Conservatives, saw a gathering reaction reflecting the protests of civil society. It began in earnest in the 1850s with laws mandating vaccination and the construction of sewers, notably in London after the great “stink” of 1858 – but a spate of reservoir and aqueduct building then followed across the country. Working conditions were regulated, and the foundations of a national education system laid.

It was obvious that economic strength, a functioning society and the vigorous assertion of public health were intertwined. Libertarian anxieties to keep the state small, taxes low and regulation minimal were disregarded as dangerously antisocial.

Thus to today. Keir Starmer’s state of Britain speech last Thursday might have been over-trailed, but its core propositions were on the nail. He was right to say that the impact of the virus “has been made all the worse because the foundations of our society have been weakened over a decade”. Right to say that Covid-19 has “shifted the axis of economic policy – both what is necessary and what is possible have changed”. And right in his “call to arms” – a wholesale remaking of the country led by government, in which fighting inequality and insecurity will be foundational.

Strong public health is fundamental to our civilisation, but it is not only about access to doctors and medicine. Working and living conditions – what we eat, how we are housed, what we can earn and in what circumstances – are all crucial to our health, an argument made forcibly by leading epidemiologist Professor Michael Marmot, who was cited by Starmer. Cities and towns such as Leicester, Bradford and Blackpool endure too much rotten, overcrowded housing; too many of their inhabitants survive on scant incomes and, in the worst cases, suffer “deaths of despair”, to borrow the term from economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Of course these places have emerged as Covid blackspots. But just as with cholera and smallpox in the 19th century, infection there spreads to us all. Any plan for recovery that ignores this reality will fail.

A starting point would be to resurrect and scale up some of New Labour's achievements

Starmer is capturing a change in the national mood. It is obvious in the business sector where in the last few months a plethora of companies – Barclays, Shell, the National Grid, Severn Trent – have made binding commitments to move to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or even sooner. Sustainability in its widest sense – from promoting biodiversity to recycling waste – is mainstream. Unemployment has grown far less than feared, given a 9.9% fall in GDP over 2020, in part because of furloughing, but also because many big companies have prioritised staff wellbeing. Covid has triggered a new awareness that inequality is indulged at our peril.

If Starmer’s intended ends are clear, the means have still to be filled in. Beveridge, invoked by Starmer, wrote his landmark report for a Britain without an NHS, a national education and social security system. What to do now needs to be as effective, but cleverer and more deft. A starting point would be to resurrect and scale up some of New Labour’s initiatives – SureStart, for example, or the excellent child trust fund, encouraging parents to build up assets for their children, scrapped with such abandon by the coalition government.

It is time to stop being neuralgic about New Labour’s achievements. Beyond that: serious taxes on capital, inheritance and pollution? A national youth corps? Growth poles around top universities? A repurposing of the very idea of the company? Overhaul of the £9tn asset management industry? A national mentoring and coaching scheme? A micro-firm revolution? Reimagined trade unions?

There are ideas aplenty – but one capital omission. Brexit, with its origins in a twisted alchemy of nationalism and libertarianism – the connecting theme of all three recent disasters – will cumulatively cost Britain another £1tn in lost trade, output and tax over the next decade. On this Starmer was silent. Over the last 40 years Labour has too often allowed its opponents to make the ideological weather; it is now doing the same over Brexit.

The decades ahead could and should be as predominantly Labour as the last decades of the 19th century were Liberal because the times are similarly ripe – but that requires the audacity to challenge. Yes, it’s society stupid. But it’s also Europe, stupid.

  • Will Hutton is an Observer columnist

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