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Keir Starmer sets out a vision – but taking back control will require details

If Starmer wants to be seen as a PM in waiting, then he will need to convince the public that he can develop the policies to realise this vision.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks during a visit to UCL at Here East, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks during a visit to UCL at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London.

The Labour leader’s start-the-year speech showed ambition, a bold borrowing of a Brexit slogan and a welcome focus on the long term. But Emma Norris says that if Starmer wants to be seen as a prime minister in waiting, then he will need to convince the public that he can develop the policies to realise this vision.

They might have been speaking from the same venue, but the similarities between the start-the-year speeches from the prime minister and Keir Starmer ended there.  

For Sunak the priority was to focus on relatively low-ambition competence, as a contrast to the chaos that preceded him. He set out five achievable goals that he hopes will enable him to rebuild trust with a demonstrably sceptical electorate.  

Starmer’s aim was to convince people he has the ambition and vision to lead the country – setting out plans for a ‘decade of renewal’, explicitly rejecting the ‘big government chequebook’ approach which the Conservatives are likely to use to attack Labour, and styling himself as the candidate of change and reform. However, while it was a bolder vision than Sunak’s, Starmer will soon need to spell out in detail – which require a sound opposition policy-making process – how a Labour government would actually tackle the problems facing the country.  

Starmer is setting out a vision – but policy detail remains vague

Where Sunak had five specific priority promises he wants to be judged against, Starmer attempted to sell one overarching vision for the country. He spoke of the untapped potential that he plans to unleash through a large programme of decentralisation and devolution of power. Borrowing the Brexit campaign’s ‘take back control’ slogan – and promising a ‘Take Back Control’ Bill in a King’s Speech – he pledged to give communities the powers they need to build economic prosperity, enabling them to request new powers over everything from employment support to housing and childcare. He also pledged to work in partnership with the private sector and to pursue fiscal restraint and public service reform.  

But, like Sunak, the Labour leader offered limited detail on how he would tackle the immediate problems people are facing, and indeed limited policy detail overall. This was despite setting his speech in the context of the crisis the country is currently experiencing. Some points came through in questions – a step back from abolishing university tuition fees, a commitment to repealing any new anti-strike legislation and some shorter-term ideas for tackling the NHS crisis (virtual wards, expedited hospital discharges). But overall, this was a speech focused on vision rather than detail.

Sunak will have to turn to the question of pay and public services in mere days and weeks. Starmer is not the prime minister, and a general election could be two years away. But tempting as it is to avoid setting out concrete plans in opposition when riding high in the polls, if Starmer wants to be seen as a real alternative then he does need to convince the public that he has answers. How does Labour’s vision of devolution differ from the government’s?  What are Labour’s proposals for fixing the policy areas Starmer said are broken – childcare, skills, housing? What kinds of partnerships does Labour want to build with the private sector? What would Labour pay striking public sector workers and how would settlements be funded? Policy development – adding the detail to its plans and building the partnerships needed to deliver change – must be Labour’s focus for the coming months. 

Starmer's speech contained a welcome focus on good government  

The ‘take back control’ pledge will make the headlines and dominate the analysis of Starmer’s speech, but another repeated phrase was just as important. Mounting a critique of a system that has become too focused on short termism and crisis management, Starmer vowed to end the ‘sticking plaster’ approach to politics and government. Citing Conservative governments’ failures to prioritise energy security and grip the underlying causes of the current crisis in the healthcare system, Starmer said he would modernise central government. He pledged to move away from last-minute, short-term policies towards a series of ‘national missions’ designed to guide long-term decision-making and support deeper partnerships between national government, the private sector and other tiers of government.  

This diagnosis is the right one. Many seemingly intractable problems – from NHS and social care reform to housing – have suffered in a system that incentivises short-term fixes over long term change. But while national missions will help prioritise activity in government, setting a course for long-term change in the way government works will require Starmer to oversee – after more than half a decade of intense polarisation and disagreement at Westminster – a completely different approach to policy. This is a huge shift from the divisive, campaigning style of Johnson and Truss’ freewheeling approach to evidence and institutions.  

Policies that have – at least to some extent – stayed the course, from shared agreements to tackle climate change to the provision of a national minimum wage, have relied on cross-party cooperation and policy-making processes capable of brokering agreement between complex, conflicting interests. They have also relied on a civil service that is both capable and empowered to take a long-term approach to policy development, rather than one that has – in recent years – found itself battered and bruised by political turbulence and constant ministerial change. 

When facing Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the Labour leader sought to define himself by basic competence – but that has, so far, been Rishi Sunak’s approach too. Starmer has now articulated a scale of vision that Sunak did not. But formulating a distinct policy offer – and setting out a clear plan for delivering those policies – will soon be demanded from the leader of the opposition.

Political party
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Keir Starmer
Institute for Government

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