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Editorial: Starmer opposes austerity – but doesn't address the crisis of modern capitalism

PUNDITS looking to use Keir Starmer’s unofficial relaunch today to differentiate him from his predecessor could start by noting that he was allowed to talk about it.

Polite reporters asked questions about the speech, allowing the Labour leader to clarify and reinforce points.

This was refreshing, since for most of the last five years under Jeremy Corbyn journalists pointedly ignored the content of speeches and confined questions to the latest concocted scandal, a disloyal MP’s briefing about him or how he intended to atone that day for being such a terrible person.

But it is also hypocritical. Political reporters who insisted then that divisions in Labour were more newsworthy than its plans for government had plenty of material today: it marked three months since Starmer withdrew the whip from Corbyn. 

The Labour in Exile Network has announced that it will publish its study demonstrating a “monstrous purge” is taking place in the party this weekend, and dismal polling figures have led MPs to demand that he urgently address the concerns of the Labour left in order to unite the party before the May elections. All that could have featured in questioning, but didn’t. 

That’s because Starmer doesn’t raise the hackles of the Westminster set. He’s part of the club.

As a result he can get away with attacking “inequalities and injustices” without provoking a barrage of media misrepresentation. In these areas, his speech was not bad. 

Starmer moved beyond merely presenting himself as a more competent manager of the status quo to stress that Britain’s appalling experience of coronavirus is rooted in the political policy choices of the last decade.

It was an anti-austerity speech: “You [can’t] strip back public services, ignore inequalities and take money out of the pockets of those who need it most.” Starmer attacked the Tory plans to cut universal credit and slammed them for voting against free school meals.

And in pointing out that the pandemic has “pulled back the curtain” on an already broken economy and calling for a Beveridge Report-style blueprint for a different future the Labour leader is in tune with a wider public appetite for change.

His immediate political problem is that the Tories understand that too. As Momentum points out, Rishi Sunak is not George Osborne. The Tories have long abandoned the rhetoric of austerity, and they haven’t stinted on spending money during the pandemic, though it has mostly gone to their friends.

This government has repeatedly U-turned when faced with significant opposition (which has rarely, it must be said, been spearheaded by Her Majesty’s Opposition): on evictions, on exam grades, on school reopening, on free school meals. It may well do so on universal credit — all the more reason for keeping up the pressure, but so far Labour has not taken credit for any of these victories.

A bigger role for the state as an active partner with business is exactly what the Tories say they are delivering, while support for increased spending is now the received wisdom among Establishment economists (the Financial Times talks of John Maynard Keynes having been “disinterred”). 

The crisis has highlighted the horrendous costs of outsourcing public service functions to private business, from the test-and-trace fiasco to the chaos of NHS Supply Chain. 

Starmer’s paean to “partnership” with business suggests this is not a lesson he intends to learn. 

Nor does his claim that businesses “know the days of ignoring their social and climate responsibilities are long gone” stand up to scrutiny. 

Super-exploitation by the likes of Amazon, the direct role of polluters such as the fracking and aviation industries in blocking action on climate change, the uncontrolled exercise of corporate power that tech giant Facebook is currently deploying against the whole of Australia — this is the reality of modern capitalism. 

Nothing in Starmer’s speech suggests he is ready to confront these problems, or even recognise them.

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