Is Keir Starmer's Labour truly ready for power?

The left wing of UK politics is at once so weak yet in a strong position

Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer speaks in the UK House of Commons in London last week. AFP
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Labour party politicians trying to win power in the UK general election in July face just one question that comes at them in a variety of forms: is the opposition truly ready for power?

The left wing of UK politics is at once so weak yet in a strong position. The poll of polls is looking good for Labour and has done for more than a year. The Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, is practised enough not to put a foot wrong. But it is also credible to observe that he has not sealed the deal with the public.

On one point I can be clear: Labour’s top leadership is ready to take power if the voters decide to take the leap. Just hours before Prime Minister Rishi Sunak went out into the rain to trigger the election with a doorstep address, I watched a demonstration of this readiness.

Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy and Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey appeared together at the London Defence Conference. In the room, the specialists of the security world hunched forward looking for their perspectives on the challenges that the UK could face under a Labour leadership.

Not for the first time, the two exhibited a wide-ranging grasp of issues facing the country and they almost finished each other’s sentences. The two were as tight and as solid as a dovetail-cut piece of carpentry.

What was remarkable was that Mr Lammy had come to the podium fresh from an appearance with another prospective cabinet colleague, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves. There, too, on display was a practised demonstration of their global view where the “securonomics” policy was laid out to the Chatham House think tank.

Altogether it was an impressive commitment to showing that the party was in a good and responsible place. In fact, Mr Lammy tweeted as much later, along with pictures of the two appearances. “Our foreign policy will reconnect Britain for our prosperity and security at home,” he stated in the message on X.

It is a commonly held verdict in Westminster that Sunak and his closest circle are bad at politics

In a tweet of her own this weekend, Ms Reeves set out her stall with the message that in this election “stability is change”. That means things like guaranteeing certain Conservative party policies, such as not raising the corporation tax above the current rate of 25 per cent and providing tax breaks for corporate investments.

Labour says it will even scrap or block some of the Conservative measures that business doesn’t like, such as a proposed cap on immigration numbers. It will abandon the high-profile but statistically insignificant Rwanda exclusions scheme, too. Pursuing, instead, an Australian points-based visa scheme would proactively tackle skills shortages and be business friendly.

The bigger picture is that Ms Reeves is countering the Conservative messaging around providing a secure future. Her agenda places a priority on recognising that geopolitical dynamics are critical to the health of the economy. She says this entanglement is much greater than ever before.

Second, she points out that the next government must get ahead of rapid technological change to deliver its opportunities and manage its impact on jobs and equality. Third, Labour is determined to respond to the climate crisis more effectively than the Conservatives under Mr Sunak. This means taking a more proactive approach to driving the green economy response.

Meanwhile, it must be now seen how Mr Sunak responds to a series of setbacks in the first days of his election campaign.

As the analyst Tom Hamilton observed, it is not looking good. “One gaffe is a gaffe. A rolling clown show of hilarious unforced errors is a narrative,” he said. “It’s tempting to think the Tories are trying to lull their opponents into a false sense of security. But sometimes, when you’re on the ropes getting repeatedly punched in the face, it’s not a rope-a-dope strategy: it’s just you on the ropes getting repeatedly punched in the face.”

It is a commonly held verdict in Westminster that Mr Sunak and his closest circle are bad at politics. Indeed, his whole rise still seems predicated on a short period in 2020 when he was “dishy Rishi” with slick videos that discussed his fondness for Mexican-made Coca Cola (it is made with sugar cane).

What the Prime Minister would like to frame the election choice around is a version of the future that is not all that different from the Labour talking points. “Who has the clear plan and bold ideas to deliver a secure future for you and your family?” he asks.

From this descends an argument that the UK needs leadership that is prepared strategically and economically, with robust plans and greater national resilience, to meet instability with strength. Like Labour, he argues that technologies such as AI will do for the 21st century what the steam engine and electricity did for the 19th.

Mr Sunak argues that he has the vision to get the country ready for the technological upheaval. AI machines will “accelerate human progress by complementing what we do, by speeding up the discovery of new ideas, and by assisting almost every aspect of human life”.

It’s hard to argue that the Labour party has failed to get itself ready to take power after July 4. It has certainly shown itself more ready for the campaign than the man who triggered the surprise poll in rainswept Downing Street.

Published: May 27, 2024, 4:00 AM