After more than a year of lurking peripherally in British politics, a figure rendered irrelevant by both circumstance and his own failure to animate imagination, Keir Starmer has finally stepped forward to present who he is. What his pamphlet for the Fabian Society intended was to outline Labour’s return to centre-left politics. This was not an essay overflowing with policies. It was, by all accounts, rather vacuous and brimming with moral gesturing.
There were, however, some noteworthy highlights, not least his talk of a ‘contribution society’ which is far less alarming than many on the left might argue. The cornerstone of this essay was an assertion that family, community and locality still wield importance. Civic pride, both of a local and national level, are the fundamental bedrocks of what Starmer wants Britain to look like. This was a recognition of a strong yearning for the familiarity that comes with belonging to a community.
A spirit of neighbourliness and social solidarity was rekindled by community organising after the outbreak of the pandemic. Mutual aid groups formed within local neighbourhoods to assist the disadvantaged, neighbours supported each other, and a general bond of togetherness was forged over a shared struggle. This fraternity has since been eroded by growing fatigue with the pandemic and a predictable retreat into tribal lines, but it was briefly a glimpse into a less fragmented country. The only other time that really happens is during football tournaments when England is united and the other nations are united in wanting England to lose.
Combined with the rise of the internet culture, particularly social media, people have felt less rooted in the towns in which they live. Data from the Office of National Statistics in 2020 revealed a decline in the level of neighbourliness, offset with a rise in social media engagement over a five-year measuring period. Globalisation has created a different world where relationships and communities can exist online without the need for interaction in a shared space.
This, however, does not always tell the story of what has been happening within many communities up and down the country to explain the profound feeling of loss and withering sense of community.
Britain is unequal in many ways and one of its biggest issues are the regional inequalities. The world of some parts of London and communities in the north-west feel starkly different. Places that were left in a state of rust by deindustrialisation never received the level of attention and investment that London did. Call centres and warehouses now fill spaces where remnants of the manufacturing and mining days remain like ghosts of Britain’s industrial past. This is a snapshot of globalisation where there are some winners and many losers. And despite David Cameron’s claim that austerity was a collective sacrifice, it’s unquestionably evident that areas such as Liverpool and Barnsley have shouldered a greater burden of the cuts.
In his essay, Starmer pinpointed one of the underlying issues with this with a hypothetical scenario in which he compared individuals who were happy to leave their homes versus those who opted for more anchored lives. The socioeconomic crisis in Britain is where the economic arrangement does not permit for those outside big cities to always stay close to their families. Where towns are essentially abandoned and suffering from systematic neglect, this erodes a sense of local attachment as economic pressures compel people to leave in search of employment.
London is a gigantic hub of jobs that areas such as Blackpool or Newcastle simply cannot compete with. It prospers but at the cost of communities in other areas feeling fragmented because of these unsettling changes. In this, Starmer is correct to highlight how regional inequalities tear families and communities apart. The current economic model simply doesn’t respect the wishes of those living in post-industrial or coastal communities who want to stay where they are rather than being forced to move to one of the major cities.
The challenge for Starmer is how he will restore the earnings of families and communities whilst maintaining that spirit of social solidarity. It is not enough to simply identify the issues of day currently facing the country or to outline your personal philosophy – these are academic matters; Starmer must demonstrate what his vision would be if fully realised.
It may be the case that Starmer fails. Labour’s distance from power is as it was in 2020 and it’s not so much the case as to what he can do right as it is how badly can Boris Johnson do. Bridging the cultural divides in the UK simply by talking positively about neighbourliness with good economics won’t suffice. There are more difficult conversations lying in wait, such as on immigration, extremism, military interventions and identity issues. These are issues that Labour has had a very hard time convincing the rest of the country of its vision.
The essay was not meant to be the grand declaration of a new economic settlement immediately charted out by Labour. But it must be the beginning of something down the road ahead as far as Starmer is concerned. It’s fine that right now Starmer is more focused on setting out what he is about through emphasis on values and stories rather than policies. If this is the introduction of the Starmer philosophy to the public, then there is enough to arouse interest there. Yet a good story needs a good storyteller too – and we are far from clear if Starmer is one.