Labour leader Keir Starmer seemed to offer a change from “business as usual” in a speech on Thursday billed as a significant break from Tory politics.
But “partnership” with the businesses that have benefited from a decade of Tory rule was at the centre of it.
Starmer said the government’s coming annual budget, set for 3 March, presents a “fork in the road.” He pointed to the Tories’ disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic—and linked their failures to years of austerity and privatisation.
“Covid got into the cracks and crevices of our society and forced them open with tragic consequences,” he said. “These are the inevitable consequences of a decade of decisions guided by the notion that government can’t interfere with the market.”
He attacked the idea that “you can strip back public services, ignore inequalities and take money out of the pockets of those who need it most only to look the other way when the consequences of those choices become clear.”
It was an admission the neoliberalism—the politics that justified four decades of privatisation and austerity—has deepened economic crises and meant misery for ordinary people.
Starmer said there is “a mood in the air which we don’t detect often in Britain.” He knows that anger at the results of neoliberalism cased the anger that led to the Brexit vote and support for Labour’s previous leader Jeremy Corbyn.
But he didn’t mention that throughout those four decades, Labour also championed austerity and privatisation under a string of leaders including James Callaghan, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.
Instead, in a dig at Corbyn’s leadership, he claimed that “for too long Labour has failed to realise that the only way to deliver social justice and equality is through a strong partnership with business”.
“Under my leadership, that mindset will change,” he said.
“I believe in the power of active, enterprising government working alongside British business. Not because I believe business is something just to be tolerated or taxed, but because I know that governments can’t do this on their own.”
So Starmer promised a raft of handouts to businesses. This included extending tax cuts.
Rather than squeeze the rich, Starmer proposed a British Recovery Bond open to people to “invest in local communities, jobs and businesses.” In other words, he wants ordinary people to lend the government money to spend on the bosses.
Starmer argues that bosses and bankers can no longer rely on the Tories. He wants to offer them Labour as an alternative home—and also to channel the growing dissatisfaction among ordinary people behind it.
But business comes first.
One journalist asked Starmer if he would oppose increases in corporation tax—a tax on business—and if he supported renationalisation of “key industries.” He dodged the question of renationalisation, and said tax rises “risk throttling off the economy.”
Starmer wants businesses to know he won’t do anything without their approval. That’s why he also promised Labour wouldn’t “spend money we can’t afford”—another dig at Corbyn’s leadership.
And it means, despite his promises to end austerity, if bosses demand cuts, he’ll go along with them.
Starmer kept repeating that the government had reached a “fork in the road”. But the choice is between siding with bosses or ordinary people—and Starmer has shown he’ll always chose to walk with the bosses.
Labour won’t challenge Tory cronyism
Starmer claimed that his leadership meant a break from privatisation and outsourcing.
Yet just days later he refused to follow through and attack the Tories over a major outsourcing scandal.
In his speech last week, Starmer said the coronavirus crisis had “got into the cracks and crevices of our society and forced them open with tragic consequences.”
“These are the inevitable consequences of a decade of decisions guided by the notion that government can’t interfere with the market,” he said.
It followed a speech by his shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds earlier this year that said outsourcing had failed to offer “value for public money”.
Just days after Starmer’s speech Tory health secretary Matt Hancock was found to have unlawfully handed a contract manufacturing medical supplies to a personal friend.
Hancock’s former neighbour was handed £30 million to provide Covid-19 test vials for the NHS.
Yet Starmer refused to demand that Hancock resign—because he didn’t want to be seen attacking the government.
In the end, Starmer puts appearing “responsible” ahead of opposing the Tories.