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Starmer echoing Blair beats Sunak channeling Thatcher

Starmer echoing Blair beats Sunak channeling Thatcher

The general election campaign has begun in all but name. Which playbook, Thatcher or Blair, safety first or time for a change, will prove the winner?

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Last Updated : 18 May 2024, 10:28 IST
Last Updated : 18 May 2024, 10:28 IST
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By Martin Ivens

It’s deja vu all over again in UK politics. In response to dire local election results, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rallied his Tory troops with a speech at the Policy Exchange think-tank that channeled Margaret Thatcher circa 1983.

Two days later, Labour’s Keir Starmer responded by unveiling his six “first steps” in a Labour government, borrowing a talismanic formula from Tony Blair who put five simple pledges on laminated cards before his 1997 landslide victory.

The general election campaign has begun in all but name. Which playbook, Thatcher or Blair, safety first or time for a change, will prove the winner?

Starmer is at pains to deny that he is Blair 2.0, minus the charisma. That’s certainly true in one respect — his promises are intentionally mushier than his predecessor’s concrete, time-limited targets. It’s easy to see why. Last year, Sunak also made five detailed pledges, only one of which — halving inflation, which in any case is the Bank of England’s responsibility — looks set to be achieved. Starmer won’t repeat that mistake.

Praise or blame for Starmer’s vague policy platform is in any case beside the point. The medium is the message. Labour’s official launch in an Essex film studio on Thursday, choreographed with the shadow cabinet dancing in attendance, was yet another Blair tribute act. The leader stalked the stage without a jacket or tie in the manner of Labour’s only three times election winner. Even the accompanying poster echoed one from Blair’s 1990s campaign.

In another blast from the past, Sunak has accused Starmer of being “soft” on defense. With the Russian offensive grinding toward Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, the prime minister is channeling Thatcher’s successful portrayal of Labour as unable to cope with the threat posed by the Soviet Union, in contrast with her willingness to go to war with the Argentine junta over the Falkland Islands.

Four years ago, Labour’s leader would have been open to his opponent’s charge. Starmer served in the shadow cabinet of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, a nuclear disarmer who made light of the danger from Russia and was hostile to the US. Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, and his shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, both voted in 2016 against the renewal of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, Trident.

But times have changed. Labour has suspended Corbyn’s party membership. Starmer routinely drapes himself in the national flag and defends the nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, Lammy has been wooing Republicans as well as Democrats, seemingly with some success. That really is a tribute to Blair, who became fast friends with the Republican president George W. Bush after having been Democrat Bill Clinton’s best foreign pal.

On a Hudson Institute platform this month, Lammy described himself as “a good Christian boy,” a “conservative Labour politician” and a “friend” of Donald Trump supporter Senator J.D. Vance. Lammy has also pivoted on the Republican presidential candidate; having once vilified him, Lammy now says that Trump’s policies are “often misunderstood.” Not everyone approves — London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan growled in response “If my best mate was a racist, a sexist or a homophobe, I’d call him out.”

In his Policy Exchange speech, Sunak blamed the economy’s recent troubles on events beyond his control — the pandemic, war and energy prices. He accused Starmer of “depressing” the country into voting for Labour by harping on about “broken Britain.” Yet Sunak is stuck with the Tory record of poor productivity and sluggish growth per capita since the party took power in 2010. He echoes Thatcher’s line that “there’s no turning back.” Her successor John Major's mantra that "if it isn't hurting, it isn't working" is another subtext.

In one respect, however, UK politics have moved on. The obvious Thatcherite charge against Starmer is that his plan to boost workers’ rights jeopardizes the UK’s flexible labour market, the envy of its European competitors. Yet Sunak’s speech hardly touched on this theme — union bashing isn’t so popular these days. Starmer, too, failed to include the restoration of union privileges in his six pledges. Like Blair, he’s busy wooing big business.

Blair accepted the booming Thatcherite economic model, but redistributed its profits to pay for better public services. The current Tory administration is unlikely to leave Labour with such a healthy balance sheet.

In fact, the center-left critique of Labour’s current leadership is that Starmer and shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves have become heirs to Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown in another baleful respect: Just as Blair and Brown stuck to the Tories unrealistically austere spending plans after their 1997 triumph, so Reeves pays obeisance to the Tories’ eye-wateringly tight fiscal targets.

“Stability is change” — meaning a switch to Labour — Reeves told a City audience recently, in oxymoronic contrast to Tory “chaos.” The day after her speech, Andrew Haldane, the independently minded former chief economist of the Bank of England, responded that “stability is good but not remotely good enough for progress and prosperity.”

Haldane speaks for an influential school of Keynesian economists who believe that the UK lacks a culture of investment and risk-taking, with too little creative destruction of underperforming companies. The current fiscal rules require that debt is on a declining trajectory at the end of five years. The Treasury opposes borrowing to invest in transformative projects. The HS2 high speed railway extension to Manchester was canceled by Sunak. Reeves has all but scrapped her party’s green prosperity plan.

Perhaps Reeves will modify her stance once she escapes the straitjacket of opposition. In the here and now, a 30-point lead in the opinion polls suggest that change under Starmer trumps safety first with Sunak. The voters want the Tories out — even if they don’t think Starmer is Blair’s Second Coming.

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