NEWS16 March 2021

Keir Starmer: ‘Labour must conjure a moment of change’

Covid-19 Impact 2021 News Public Sector UK

UK – Going back to ‘business as usual’ after Covid-19 would be a “huge political mistake”, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has said.

The UK is at a “profound moment” as a result of the pandemic, said Starmer, speaking during a pre-recorded keynote interview with BritainThinks co-founder Deborah Mattinson at the MRS Impact 2021 virtual conference today.

He said: “There has been huge sacrifice – and huge solidarity – and the question is, how do we come out of it?”

Most people are experiencing the “very human” sense of seeking a return to normality in terms of human contact, Starmer said. “There’s an emotional, human sense of ‘going back to normal’.”

However, he added: “It’s really important that we don’t go back to ‘business as usual’. We’ve been out on a Thursday night clapping for key workers who have been underpaid and undervalued for a very long time.”

Labour must now “conjure up a post-WW2 moment of change,” he said, citing the UK’s high death toll from the pandemic.  

“Although I do think the indecision and slowness of the prime minister played a huge part, underpinning it was the structural inequality, the failing of the economy, the under-funding of public services and the fragility of much of the infrastructure – and we can’t go back to that,” said Starmer. “If all we aspire to do is somehow go back to where we started, it’s a huge, huge political mistake.”

He cited Michael Marmot’s 10-year study of health inequalities, which showed “the clearest evidence of a decline and of embedding of inequality”, and said: “We owe it to the country to go forward to a different future, I think it’s a massive fork in the road. My sense is that the Tories instinctively will go back to where we started, whereas I think we need to treat it as a moment where we go for something else.”

He added: “The Labour Party only really wins when we glimpse the future and persuade people that the future can be different, but better. In my view, that’s what we need to do heading into 2024 and the pandemic forces us to do that – I think it’s our duty to do that.”

Discussing Labour’s efforts to re-engage voters post-2019, Starmer said the party needed to “identify a winning coalition” of groups of voters that share the party’s “values and aspirations”.

He said: “I think the art and skill is to find the common ground between different groups. Where are the reference points? What are the values and where might they meet? When you take the difficult issues and talk them through, there are sometimes meeting points you didn’t expect to be there.”

Evidence is “hugely important” for Starmer, but he said leaders need to look at various sources of evidence, citing the example of polling needing to be put into context. “Between 2010 and 2015, the Labour Party was probably seduced into thinking it was better than it was, because Ukip was eating into some of the Conservative vote and therefore the polling didn’t tell the whole story of what was going on,” he said.

While Starmer said “the best evidence is probably an election – that tells you in pretty stark terms where you’re at”, he said “the most interesting” focus groups are those following a particular group of people over a period of time.

“I think what it tells you is where people are actually at, rather than making assumptions – and where is the common ground that you can use – because where people are at may not be in politics where you think you need to get to. If you don’t know where people are at, there’s no way of bridging to them.”

When asked for the most useful insight he’s received either from polling or focus groups, Starmer discussed a series of Zoom calls he held with former voters after becoming leader.

“People came on screen and were looking at me to see if I was listening. They wanted to know ‘What’s this fella like? Do you think he’s actually listening?’ That’s not what I expected, but it was pretty profound. As much as I wanted to know what they think, they wanted to know that I was listening.” 

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