Miles BenningtonEditor, Chamber
Beginning his new year speech, in his rolled up shirtsleeves from a factory in Stratford, the Leader of the Opposition started with a preamble that set out where he is coming from, both literally and figuratively.
While explaining that he grew up working class in the 1970s and so understands the feelings of a cost-of-living crisis, he also took the time to explain that he wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn. To this end he reassured viewers of his stance on antisemitism, NATO and national security.
“I came to politics late in my career. I’ve run large organisations, institutions that had to serve our country, and I’ve changed them all – including the Labour Party.”
Despite the terrible sound quality of the broadcast, the message was loud and clear.
The rest of the speech proved newer and more interesting, but as expected it was not full of detailed policy announcements. For those looking for policy announcements the headlines are that Labour will not be proposing large spending rises at the next election and Sir Keir pledges that all Labour proposals will be fully-costed.
In the tradition of all recent Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition, Sir Keir bemoaned the centralisation of power in Westminster and vowed to move powers down to other levels of UK government. Whether this will result in a new round of policy on constitutional change is currently unclear.
“No similar country puts so much decision-making in the hands of so few people.
“So it’s no wonder the problems of communities up and down this country don’t get the attention they deserve”
While his speech eschewed addressing the current headlines in favour of talk of strategy, the Labour Leader did say that his solutions for the problems of the NHS winter crisis would be a fully costed staffing and recruitment strategy for the NHS.
The main theme of his speech sounded like strategy, but was also an attempt to reflect the feelings of the public back at themselves. He called for a “government driven by a strategic purpose”. You may ask which politician has ever called for a government with no strategic purpose, but this line is central to the Labour Leader’s attempt to set the table for a long run up to the General Election expected in 2024.
The strongest parts of today’s speech were Sir Keir’s attempts to tie the current feeling of malaise to 13 years of Conservative Government. His characterisation of a Britain that bounces from one crisis to another will clearly be a theme of his campaign to become Prime Minister going forward.
The slogan he will try to hang round the Tories necks is “sticking plaster politics”, the nuanced attack tried to separate the various problems the UK faces and has faced from the preparation for those problems. In a strongly developed attack he started with the energy price freeze, while the right policy Sir Keir characterised it as an expensive last minute fix to problems that were developing over year. The Conservatives cannot be blamed for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine he said, but they are responsible for scrapping home insulation schemes, banning onshore wind farms and stalling nuclear energy developments.
“It’s why every crisis hits Britain harder than our competitors. The only country in the G7 still poorer than it was before the pandemic. The worst decade for growth in two centuries. Seven million on waiting lists and rising. That hasn’t happened elsewhere.”
Most audaciously he tried to frame the famous “take back control” slogan of the Leave campaign as well as disgruntled “Yes” voters in Scotland’s 2014 referendum on independence, as a country crying out for “public services they could rely on, high streets they could be proud of and opportunities for the next generation in their own city”. Presumably his as-yet-undefined devolution policies will give them this control.
“It’s not unreasonable for us to recognise the desire for communities to stand on their own feet. It’s what take back control meant.”
As Leader of the Opposition, it is Sir Keir’s job to advocate for a “change election” in 2024 where the electorate will vote on the basis of their presumably negative assessment of the Conservative Party. In this speech he made some strong arguments that while a Labour Government cannot control the political weather they can at least prepare for it more competently than this Government has.
By attacking the Tories’ handling of the crises, he also deftly cut a potential lifeline for Rishi Sunak’s party. Voters can be reticent to change governments during an ongoing crisis and given the situation in Eastern Europe, it is possible that the Prime Minister will make an appeal for stability before the next election. That appeal may fall on deaf ears if the electorate is convinced to blame the Conservatives not for the crises they have governed through but the lack of preparation to face those crises.