Writing for The Telegraph, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has once again endeavoured to distinguish himself from predecessor Jeremy Corbyn in an attempt to win voters from the centre-right. While the piece reiterates familiar criticisms of the current Conservative government – the decline of public services, wasting taxpayer money – it is Starmer’s comments on previous Prime Ministers which have attracted the most attention.
Between the end of the second world war and the turn of the millennium, Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair each transformed UK politics in different ways. According to the Labour leader, Thatcher “sought to drag Britain out of its stupor by setting loose our natural entrepreneurialism”, a claim that is sure to enrage much of the left of the party. In our region in particular, controversy is still guaranteed more than 40 years after her election. Meanwhile, Blair “reimagined a stale, outdated Labour Party”, and Attlee “wrote that Labour must be a party of duty and patriotism, not abstract theory.”
There are several interesting features of Starmer’s comments. One that is likely to be overlooked – languishing in the shadow of his characterisation of Thatcher – is the implication that Starmer aspires to be a transformative leader who will effect “meaningful change” in Britain. By extolling the virtues of these three political giants of the 20th century, Sir Keir implicitly reveals his ambition to deliver a genuinely transformative government. This comes despite longstanding concerns that Starmer has not offered a substantive vision for the party – in June IpsosMori found that 50% of voters “don’t know” what the Labour leader stands for, more than three years into his tenure.
It is also revealing to compare the comments on each of the three politicians. The rhetoric of entrepreneurialism is integral to Thatcher’s legacy and intertwined with her policies. Tax cuts, privatisation of industry, and housing reform all fostered a culture that supported the new rightwing orthodoxy. Business was virtuous and the driver of prosperity. It is Thatcher’s support for free market competition that motivates her admirers.
In the same way, since becoming Labour leader in 1994 Blair has continually emphasised that he took his task to be the modernisation of the party. While the significance of Attlee and Thatcher indisputably come from their impact on Britain’s economy and the role of the state, Blair is at least as renowned for party reform as he is for national policies.
In contrast, highlighting Clement Attlee’s “duty and patriotism” might seem a strange choice. Today Attlee is most renowned for overseeing the creation of the welfare state, most obviously the NHS. Attlee’s Labour inducted a postwar consensus that saw even successive Conservative administrations largely follow in its footsteps, refraining from privatisation. Few today emphasise Attlee’s flag-waving, fewer still of his political descendants.
It is notable that Starmer’s understanding of Blair and Thatcher coheres with their reputation in policy and political terms, while his praise for Attlee refers to a much less substantive outlook for which he is not widely known. Of course, if asked, the Labour leader would praise Attlee’s transformative politics and the legacy of the 1945 Labour government – but in article writing, the choices over what to include and what to omit are as important as the points made.
Furthermore, it seems that these comments can serve as a case study for Capitalist Realism – the idea, popularised by Mark Fisher in his book of the same name, that free market economics is now viewed as the natural, inevitable way of things. Not only do we have “natural entrepreneurialism”, but it is also the vehicle that can carry us out of stagnation and decline. Leftwing ideas are “mind-forged manacles” and “abstract theory”, while rightwing ideas are objective, perhaps scientific observations about ourselves and the world around us. This is not to say that leftwing or rightwing ideas are correct or incorrect. It is just to highlight the worldview that Starmer’s comments reveal.
Of course, analysing the article in this way might be in some sense unnecessary. Starmer is explicit that the piece serves as a signal – namely, a signal to those who turned away from Labour in 2019 and who now feel disillusioned by the current Conservative government. One might worry that the signal could reach the not-insignificant number of Labour voters who remain sympathetic to Corbyn and despise Thatcher – but with an enduring, substantial lead in the polls that seems unlikely to evaporate, it seems that only those Labour voters need worry much.