There are many, many ways a socialist could critique the speech given today by Keir Starmer. It was vague and vapid, paying no attention to the class nature of our economy or the struggle needed to achieve any real change. It utterly failed to grasp the nature of the crisis in which the capitalist world economy finds itself today. And it offered very little in terms of support for working people in their daily struggle for survival.
But let’s suspend our critical faculties for a moment and analyse the speech on its own terms. Starmer portrays himself as a social democrat, in the long tradition of Fabianism that exists within the Labour Party. During the leadership election, he described himself as an ‘ethical’ socialist (which, as I pointed out on Owen Jones’ show last week, means socialism without class struggle).
If we assess the speech on Starmer’s own terms—according to the ideology that he claims to ascribe to—was it a success?
Unfortunately, no. I say ‘unfortunately’ because even a mild dose of social democracy would be good for the United Kingdom at this point in its history.
Working people have been beaten back across so many areas of struggle for the last several decades that a few small wins would do a huge amount to boost class consciousness and confidence. And there are many social democratic reforms—from a big increase in the social housing stock, to a revival of the labour movement—that would go some way to achieving this end.
So, unfortunately, Starmer’s speech was lacking in ambition even for a social democrat. But we can curtail our criticism even further and assess the speech as one made by a social democrat on the subject of ‘business’.
Even in this incredibly limited category, Keir’s speech lacked any real substance. Social democrats like to focus on constructing ‘embedded’ markets that can be constrained by collectively determined moral and political objectives. Markets might, for example, create socially unacceptable levels of inequality, so taxation and regulation would be required to constrain the free operation of the market and re-embed it in social mores.
When it comes to the subject of business, social democrats have historically focused on attempting to foster a corporate environment that rewards ‘good’ businesses and punishes ‘bad’ ones. The definition of these categories will vary from society to society, but generally ‘good’ businesses are the ones that respect the trade union movement, pay good wages, respect their responsibilities to their communities and the environment, and pay their taxes.
Many of these aims can be achieved through regulation and taxation. The state could, for example, remove restrictions on trade union organising, impose higher minimum wages, or reform corporate governance by encouraging businesses to put workers on their boards.
But broader considerations about market structure must be taken into account too. Monopolies and oligopolies don’t have any incentive to behave like ‘good’ businesses, because they have enough market power to get away with doing pretty much whatever they like. And high levels of market concentration distort the operation of the market mechanism in such a way as to redistribute wealth upwards, exacerbating inequality.
As a result, corporate power has also tended to be something of a buzzword for social democrats. After several decades of growing market concentration, there is a budding and fairly vocal movement in the US and the UK (where these trends are particularly obvious) to reform competition law, replacing the more laissez faire approach associated with the neoliberal turn in the 1980s with one that centres questions of market power.
Rachel Reeves has also recently centred another issue of concern to social democrats: the role of the state in distorting market outcomes and favouring certain businesses over others. The UK’s outsourcing system is—to put it bluntly—utterly corrupt, as has been starkly exposed during the pandemic.
Government contracts are written up by consultancies handed out to ministers’ friends, whose companies are being advised by those very consulting firms. Billions of pounds worth of public money is then thrown at a few giant outsourcing companies, which deliver sub-par services at eye-watering prices without ever being held to account.
Each of these issues should be of significant concern to the average social democrat. They are a big part of what explains the ‘failure’ of the free market system to promote equity, social justice and sustainability.
Of course, as socialists, we know that the defining feature of capitalism isn’t ‘free markets’, it’s the domination of labour by capital. Capitalism isn’t failing, it’s working exactly as it’s supposed to – even as it is marked by increasingly frequent and severe crises that the ruling class is scrambling to resolve.
Keir Starmer would never accept such an analysis. The majority of the population would also be unlikely to engage with it on those terms. But the whole point of political communications is to find compelling and convincing ways to portray your view of the world in a way that makes it seem like common sense, building support for your policies and a sense of collective agency among your target coalition.
In contrast, Starmer’s speech seemed clumsy and technocratic, even as it failed to make any headway on real, technical issues of policy. Some of the right questions were there—like ‘how do we deal with inequality?’—but the answers were either non-existent or unconvincing.
I, like many socialists, would love to see a genuinely social democratic leader of the Labour Party. In the long run, a social democratic model would provide a far better terrain on which to advance class struggle than the current neoliberal one.
But Keir Starmer pales in comparison to the post-war social democrats to whom he compares himself. Perhaps this has something to do with a lack of ambition. It could also be down to a lack of character, and of leadership.