With his party enjoying a small but consistent lead in the polls and less internal unrest than usual, Labour leader Keir Starmer hoped for a strong start to the new year with this week's policy speech in Birmingham. Standing before two union flags, he unveiled a new slogan, "security, prosperity and respect", and a new gimmick in the shape of a "contract" between Labour and the British people.
Although the speech included little policy detail it struck a welcome note for parts of Labour’s base, including the trade union movement, with a focus on improving job security and helping to ease the cost of living crisis.
His reference to respect appeared to be a nod to Germany's chancellor Olaf Scholz, who won last year's election for his Social Democrats by promising to restore respect for all.
For Scholz, respect meant paying people more and securing their pensions, and it involved standing up to the populist right in culture wars. Starmer was vaguer, promising to treat institutions with respect and talking about the right to be treated with respect and not looked down upon.
“Nobody should be treated as if they don’t matter. I know this can happen. I saw it with my dad. My dad always felt undervalued because he worked in a factory. He felt people looked down on him. And he wasn’t wrong about that,” he said.
“People have their dignity and it needs to be respected. I want to live in a country in which crucial skills are valued. In which everyone is respected for what they contribute. And in the Britain we make, we will all play by the rules.”
There was more pabulum about Labour being a national party but not a nationalist one, and about Starmer’s belief in “our union of nations”. But there was only a glancing reference to “making Brexit work”, perhaps because Starmer’s support for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal last year makes it more difficult for him to point out its evident inadequacies now.
The Labour leader disappeared from view after the speech, infected with coronavirus for the second time in three months, and his deputy Angela Rayner faced Johnson at prime minister's questions. A livelier performer at the despatch box, Rayner is still talked up by the Conservative-supporting press but her star has dimmed in recent weeks as Starmer has tightened his grip on the party.
Last year's shadow cabinet reshuffle moved his team sharply to the right, promoting Blairites like Wes Streeting and Brownites like Yvette Cooper who are also effective media performers. Starmer blindsided Rayner with the reshuffle but briefings complaining on her behalf had no effect beyond highlighting her isolation as a figure increasingly excluded from the leader's circle but mistrusted on the left of the party.
Starmer drove home his rejection of the left-wingers who helped to make him leader by praising Tony Blair in his Birmingham speech, reflecting the fact that Labour's left has failed to regroup following Jeremy Corbyn's departure. Starmer's speech this week did little to contradict the left's assertion that he stands for very little except winning power, a weakness they believe will condemn Labour to a fourth successive election defeat.
The conventional wisdom in British politics is that oppositions do not win elections but governments lose them, and Johnson appears determined to demonstrate the truth of that proposition. His personal difficulties over asking party donors to pay for his private flat’s refurbishment and his role in lockdown-breaking Downing Street parties may be the smallest of the prime minister’s problems.
A bigger worry is the looming cost of living crisis, driven by soaring energy bills and exacerbated by Brexit, which his government is set to make worse by increasing national insurance contributions next April. Jacob Rees-Mogg questioned the wisdom of the national insurance increase – which is to pay for clearing the post-Covid NHS backlog and start a new social care system – at cabinet this week.
But Johnson knows that hospital waiting lists represent a huge political threat and that any alternative means of increasing NHS funding risks splitting his party and his electoral coalition. Starmer, who is mute on Brexit and has struggled to stake out a distinctive position on coronavirus, is better placed to deal with the issues set to dominate politics in the coming months.
Labour voted against the national insurance increase, it has called for a cut in VAT on energy bills and has long criticised the government’s running down of national gas reserves. This fortuitous positioning is likely to prove more crucial to Labour’s progress than any of Starmer’s speeches as Johnson’s government struggles with its own ideological contradictions.