Can Sir Keir Starmer deliver economic growth alongside ‘net zero carbon’?

Above – this speech wasn’t meant to be like the Redcliffe Maud report on local government in England commissioned by Harold Wilson’s Government. Starmer’s speech hinted that Green Growth will be an electoral front line between the ‘reds’ and the ‘greens’ in the next general election.

You can read the transcript of Sir Keir Starmer’s speech on economic growth of 25 July 2022 here. And come to your own conclusions. For those of you with Labour MPs and/or Labour Councillors, you can email feedback via

For balance, the latest news updates for other opposition parties include:

Sir Keir’s target audience – not people like me who follow politics closely

The audience for keynote speeches like this is the general public who might only catch a few minutes of ‘politics news’ a week, of which opposition politicians might be lucky to get a 30 second soundbite. Therefore all of the messaging will have been framed towards overturning any negative opinions the wider public might have of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, while trying to hold to account the Conservatives over their record after 12 years in government.

This explains some of the buzzwords and buzz phrases he used that turn off people who follow politics and what used to be called current affairs. Hard work, and hard working families? Three word phrases? “Growth, growth, growth” Recalling “Education, education, education” under Tony Blair. And “N.H.S.” under Cameron. In the latter’s case he tried to convince the electorate that the NHS would be safe under Conservatives’ hands. It turns out that he and colleagues and successors have again proved the opposite – as the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee said earlier today in a new report.

…which explains why there was ever so little policy content in his speech

It was all very ‘high level’, setting out the problems as he sees them, and perhaps trying to convince the listening public (assuming they are listening) to nod along with what he is saying. And with so little broadcast news time, there’s no time for him to get into any public policy detail. Furthermore, his speech will inevitably be ‘spun’ by the broadcast, online, and print press – for example any changes from the 2019 manifesto. Parties that lose general elections often go through a period of soul-searching and examine which policies amongst other things need to change for the next one. The combination of the pandemic, the cost of living crisis, and the climate emergency having properly arrived – along with the Brexit shambles (See the Port of Dover) would have been enough reasons on their own to justify an overhaul of policies even if Jeremy Corbyn and colleagues had remained in charge of Labour. The simple reasons being the contexts – social, economic, and political (and public opinion along with them) had changed.

Starmer’s five principles

These are both nice and bland – something that they cannot be held to, as well as sending strong enough messages to specific groups of people and attempting to change public perceptions of Labour:

  • 1. We will be financially responsible.
  • 2. We will be distinctively British.
  • 3. We will work in partnership with business.
  • 4. We will re-energise communities and spread economic power.
  • 5. We will refocus our investment on boosting productivity.

Reading between the lines of the above quoted principles, you could add at the end of each one the following:

1 – “…unlike the Tories who squandered all that money on dodgy PPE contracts for their chums, and wasted £billions on a broken hard brexit”

2- “…because the Tories don’t have a monopoly on what it is to be British, and it also shows that we will not let our economic policies be decided by multinational corporations or foreign-domiciled media barons!”

3- “…because business owners need no longer worry that the far left will take power and nationalise your company or tax you out of business now that I’m in charge!”

4- “…because we know how badly your neighbourhoods and communities have been hit by the pandemic and the cost of living, and we know how it seems like London/Oxford/Cambridge seem to get everything

5- “…because we know that one of the biggest criticisms of UK industrial policy over the decades has been low productivity and very limited long term investment in industry – with far more going into the housing bubble that prices people out of their homes and communities

To summarise even more succinctly:

  • ‘Tories have been corrupt in Government – you’ve seen the headlines. We won’t be.’
  • ‘No more far left student union fantasy politics’
  • ‘We’re a serious partner with business and you can trust us – unlike what Boris said about Business, and unlike anti-business rhetoric you sometimes hear from the above’
  • ‘We’re not about wealthy London and elitist Oxbridge’
  • ‘We’ve got very serious ideas on dealing with very long term issues that go beyond one Parliament’

The nuances for each of those that he made in the speech for each of the five will inevitably be lost in the noise and also on the newspaper cutting floors. (Or the digital equivalent).

  1. The Conservatives are no longer the party of responsible public finances
  2. British does not mean nationalist – here’s my anecdote meeting the German Chancellor last week, who leads Labour’s sister party in Germany, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) – a nod to the pro-EU Labour members, and also a nod to the old Labour bases in the heavy industry sectors such as steel-making – essential for any new infrastructure projects such as new railway lines
  3. Innovation, technology, R&D – a hat-tip to the UK’s higher education sector that has been hit badly by Brexit
  4. A recognition that beyond the ‘white hot heat of science’ the pandemic taught us how important the low-paid sectors of the economy are, and that successive governments ignored them and that now must change. And not just because of ‘fairness’ but because the pandemic demonstrated all of these sectors are vital to the UK’s national security
  5. Devolution – it’s not just about London, or even the big cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and so on. The industrial towns that fall within those city regions (naming Birkenhead and Dudley) are important in their own right. If we took it from Cambridge’s perspective, we’d be looking at Haverhill, St Neots, and Huntingdon. From Peterborough’s perspective, Wisbech, March, Ramsay and Chatteris.
“Sir Keir didn’t say ‘how’ – and nor did he mention transport”

If we look at his audience and the timing of this speech – the Monday after recess (so a slow news day where the Tories head off to lots of private hustings and meetings on their leadership contest) this gives the Labour Leader the chance to shape expectations for the Labour Party Conference in the autumn in just over 2 months time. It is there that the leading shadow ministers will be expected to present their high-level policies.

What the Labour Leader will need to do is demonstrate how they all link together. Let’s take one of the central points: Steel production. Important for several reasons, not least historical because the steel-making unions (today these are Unite, Community, and the GMB) have been a core part of the Labour Party’s history since its foundation. So Labour will need to:

  • Set out clearly the importance of maintaining essential manufacturing industries in the UK – especially moving towards the 15 minute city concept and more localised & more resilient supply chains
  • make the case for the steel industry that we know has a very high carbon footprint, but also shows signs that this footprint can be significantly reduced (see this European Parliament Briefing Paper from 2020 here)
  • make the case for new infrastructure policies that will automatically provide markets for UK-manufactured products that will further boost productivity while at the same time significantly reducing UK’s carbon emissions – such as electrified heavy rail and the construction of light rail, trams, and metro systems across towns and cities in the UK as a means to reduce car dependency.
“How big a threat will the Liberal Democrats and The Green Party be in England?”

That depends on which part of the country you ask. There will be many seats where party activists of all three parties might have taken a collective decision to function as a progressive alliance at the next general election (mainly as a means to change the UK’s voting system), and will decide between themselves which party/candidate they want to support. In somewhere like Cambridge where there is no active branch of the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Association, and where the Liberal Democrats have the best chance in their party’s history of turfing out the Tories in South Cambridgeshire, the seat in Cambridge – now a safe Labour seat might be one that The Green Party pile in their campaign resources into as a means of breaking out of Abbey ward (where they hold all three of the city council seats) at future local council elections.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats seem to have adopted something of an unofficial policy (driven by grassroots members as much as anything) of ‘non-aggression’ towards each other where the Tories are defending a seat. In particular at by-elections. This proved to be devastatingly successful last month in June 2022 where Labour piled in their resources into Wakefield, the Liberal Democrats doing minimal campaigning there, while on the same day in Tiverton and Honiton the opposite happened – the Liberal Democrats piled in their resources into a previously safe-as-military-fortresses seat for the Conservatives, and overturned a 24,000 vote majority to gain a majority of over 6,000 of their own. Whether they will be able to hold it at a general election is another matter.

Labour’s plans for local government (including housing), active travel, buses, and light rail. Oh – and adult education too.

These are the policy areas I’m broadly interested in these days. Basically domestic policy as it affects cities, towns, villages, and communities generally. I’m not too bothered about Foreign Policy these days. I used to be – in particular the global debt crisis some 20+ years ago. But in the end you can take on too much. As a burnt out activist I’ve learnt the hard way of the importance of focusing on a very limited number of issues, and pointing to other campaigning organisations and groups saying “They’ve got this covered – go and talk to them as they know more than me!”

…Which is one way that groups of friends, and collectives of acquaintances can address what is a very complex world facing multiple crises. It’s how political parties divide up these subject areas with an individual senior politician being the person who appears in the media to answer questions. For example:

So on The Environment, although in the grand scheme of things I’m a bit of a tree-hugging eco-warrior (and have been ever since I got a copy of the Blue Peter Green Book in 1990 while at primary school – get your second hand copies for cheapo prices here!!!) I know that Cambridge’s vibrant environmentalist scene (that can pull in 2,000 votes at local elections even when The Green party stands a slate of paper candidates as they did a decade ago – here’s my perspective on the story of how they recovered) means that I can turn my attention (in the face of my now not-so-great health, & much lower mobility) towards other local issues – knowing that hundreds of new activists who have gotten involved since the early 2010s have now got this area covered.

“What is Labour’s policy on trams and light rail?”

Their last one was Andy McDonald’s policy paper from 2020 here.

“Labour’s vision is for a railway that enables everyone to travel easily and affordably right across Britain, as part of a completely accessible sustainable transport system, fully connected with buses, trams and other public transport: a railway fit to tackle the Climate Emergency.”

GB Rail – Labour Party 2020, p13

That has since been scrapped by the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves who stated Labour’s policies don’t involve renationalisation – which has created a clear policy difference with The Green Party.

Essentially the previous Labour policy was a nationalised integrated public transport system. Their transport policies will have to be rewritten because the 2020 paper (published prior to Sir Keir Starmer becoming leader) depends so much on having a nationalised public transport system in terms of who runs it, how it runs, and how it is co-ordinated with other modes of transport and operators. But again, today wasn’t the day for that public announcement. At the Labour Party Conference, people might want to see more policy detail on light rail and trams in urban and suburban areas. For those that want to find out more from industry specialists, see the LRTA here. Transport historians might also be interested in what the UK used to have too:

Above: Towards an Ideal Transport (LRTA – 1944 digitised here) and Development of the Trolley Bus – Locomotion Papers – 1957 digitised here)

Reminders from history – you can browse through some more digitised items here.

Whatever Labour choose for improving public transport, they will need to have an industrial strategy that significantly improves and perhaps localises some of the UK’s supply chains, while at the same time having a comprehensive adult education policy that leads to a new generation of adult education colleges which can train up the people that will be needed to produce the materials, components, and rolling stock for new public transport. That will have to involve encouraging people to switch careers – and must incorporate breaking class divides too. For me this means:

  • Paying adults to re-train, covering their tuition fees, and providing facilities such as child care as part of comprehensive retraining packages;
  • Creating local institutions that enable adults to learn other important things and undertake other activities/workshops that might improve their health and also their understanding of how democracy functions in an age of misinformation
  • Providing the necessary facilities for things like sports, recreation, and communal gathering given the epidemic of loneliness in society.

How radical do Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party want to be in the transition to a low carbon economy and a healthier, more socially-just society? The above gives a hint on how different policy silos can be linked together. Can we see more examples coming from party leaders? I hope so.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

%d bloggers like this: