Staff writer, Rowen Bell, examines the Labour leader’s catalogue of political U-turns and whether these will help or hinder his pursuit of power.
“Support the abolition of tuition fees and invest in lifelong learning”, read Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign in March 2020. Three years later and the Labour leader has reneged on this promise, claiming the UK economy is now in a “different financial situation”. This has followed a succession of broken promises by Starmer, who has performed similar reversals regarding nationalisation, Brexit and tax policy. In response, a discussion has opened up surrounding if, and how, this effects the electability of the Labour Party. With some heralding a shift away from the economic criticism that hounded Jeremy Corbyn’s pledges and yet, others claiming this portrays Starmer as a political opportunist, greedy for power. This may also serve to diminish the optimism which previously encompassed a Labour government and the future of the UK economy. For now Starmer seems sold by the case that these policies make more economic sense and could contribute to the desired image competency for the party if done correctly. It is this perceived economic competence that is gold dust for those seeking high office.
Tuition Fee U-turn
Tuition fees have been the victim of a political turf war since the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition chose to triple them to £9000 a year in 2010, with the then leader of the junior party, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, facing a barrage of criticism in response. Following this, the opposition Labour Party have campaigned against this decision, with Ed Miliband proposing a cut to £6000 and his successor Jeremy Corbyn wanting to abolish them entirely. For some time this was also the stance of Keir Starmer upon becoming leader. However, he has since retracted this promise due to the “financial situation” the UK economy currently faces post-Covid and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Instead he has promised to look at alternative funding models for university tuition but has left these ambiguous.
However, this could decimate the optimism which would come with a Labour government. This is especially poignant as younger voters are a key demographic for the party due to their historic interest in the younger generations. A U-turn of this nature opens the potential that this wing of the electorate feels no longer acknowledged, diminishing Labour’s hopes of victory. Although this may not affect their chances across the whole country in a pronounced way. Presently, no party against tuition fees has a realistic chance of getting into office and youth turnout is still low compared to other age groups. Therefore, it is fair to say that this decision could tarnish the reputation of the Labour Party and their leader amongst younger voters in the run up to the next election. Ultimately it is worth looking at the extent of this loss on an aggregate level across the electorate, with this not highly likely to effect the party’s chances of getting into number 10. However, this may still slightly degrade both the optimism of Labour, and portray Starmer as untrusting to these younger voters.
What about other reversals?
Starmer’s political fluctuations can be seen in other areas as well, such as on nationalisation and tax policy. Previously stating that “public services should be in public hands”, Starmer has now shifted away from nationalising these enterprises, and towards a focus on regulation to improve the quality of service these private firms provide. Regarding taxation, Starmer has recanted from his plan to increase tax for the top 5 percent of earners and has since criticised the high tax burden throughout the UK economy. This has marked a crucial shift from the Corbyn years, where tax increases on the richest formed a cornerstone of his economic policy.
Nevertheless, unlike the shift in view on tuition fees – which may discourage younger people from entering higher education, exacerbating the productivity crisis which plagues the UK economy. Other Starmerite policies are attempting to improve the economic competence which his party has traditionally been ignorant to. Preferring to place the focus on regulation rather than state ownership works in preserving the market driven competition, whilst working to provide a high-quality service, particularly in water, which has been plagued by increases in sewage dumping. Furthermore, going against additional tax increases is a centrepiece for creating economic growth whilst stimulating the innovation and enterprise which is a prerequisite for this. Despite continued questioning on Starmer’s trustworthiness due to the magnitude of these decisions, these policy changes mark an optimistic step in making the Labour Party much more electable, with economic confidence restored.
The forces behind change
Furthermore, it is worth looking at whether Starmer’s shift to the centre ground is an attempt to imitate the Conservative Party under Rishi Sunak or a genuine desire to build something new. This has been illustrated in the leader’s apparent support for the Public Order Act in response to the arrests made at the King’s coronation – he reflected that it is still “early days” for the legislation with time needed for it to be bedded in. This highlights that perhaps Starmer is working to match the Conservatives, especially when it comes to law and order and the protection of conservative values; insiders have compared this to “Tony Blair on steroids” . Therefore, the Labour leader is working to improve the electability of his party by opening them up to a broader electorate, particularly those who traditionally vote Conservative. This strategy is not fool proof – it is still worth considering whether this may go too far and risk alienating traditional Labour voters, particularly the younger ones. Ultimately, it is sensible to acknowledge that Labour must work to broaden their electoral appeal but must steer away from imitating the governing Conservatives to the extent which isolates their core voter base.
Where does this leave the Labour Party?
Sir Keir Starmer has certainly made progress on the electability of the Labour Party since becoming leader. This has involved working to improve the economic competency of party policy, away from nationalisation and towards regulation, and reducing the emphasis on huge tax increases for the richest. The leader has also strived to broaden the prospective voter base, representing an interpretation of some conservative values which succeeded for Blair 26 years ago. However, although this is generally sensible posturing, Starmer must be careful not to isolate the younger voters who form a sizeable portion of the party’s core base. This is especially important considering the party has historically struggled to mobilise younger voters (despite popular support in polling) and have been forced to battle the Tories to receive votes from older generations. Changes in policy on tuition fees may result in further alienation, with younger voters possibly protesting by supporting smaller parties, such as the Greens. Whilst this prospect seems unlikely, with Labour the only party with a chance of victory offering some interest in younger voters, it would be wise for Starmer to not pull too much further in a direction against the youth cohort. Ultimately, Starmer has boosted the economic competence of the Labour Party, but this must not run the risk of alienating voters and possibly losing electability by posturing too far to the ‘New Right’, free-market economic philosophy.