LONDON — Britain’s opposition Labour leader harkened back to the country’s post-war recovery Thursday as he tried to shrug off criticism with a major economic pitch.
Keir Starmer said the pandemic represented a “fork in the road,” and talked up a New Partnership with industry, as well as investment in education, science and manufacturing, to help the country recover from the coronavirus.
“I believe there is a mood in the air which we don’t detect often in Britain,” he said. “It was there in 1945 after the sacrifice of war and it is there again now. It is the determination that our collective sacrifice must lead to a better future.”
Starmer, who last year took the helm of a Labour Party reeling from its worst electoral result since 1935, has come under increased pressure to give voters a sense of what he stands for. He used the speech to acknowledge it has been difficult for the opposition to criticize the government at the height of the pandemic.
But, setting out his economic stall ahead of the U.K.’s upcoming budget, Starmer said he wanted to leave behind “the insecure and unequal economy” of the past, while also committing his party to “financial responsibility.”
He took potshots at Boris Johnson’s administration, arguing it was no different from previous Tory governments in its approach to public services and public spending. “Successive Conservative prime ministers have used the rhetoric of change — northern powerhouses, burning injustices, leveling up — but all that adds [up] to is a few soundbites and the odd photo opportunity,” he said.
The Labour leader proposed a new “British Recovery Bond” that he said could raise “billions” to invest in local economies, infrastructure, science, skills, technology and manufacturing. He argued that people who had been able to save during the pandemic might see it as a secure way to invest, and described the plan as “an example of the type of empowered government I believe is needed if we are going to build a more secure economy.”
Starmer said the pandemic represented a “call to arms,” and a chance to “diagnose the condition of Britain and to start the process of putting it right” — mirroring the post-Second World War Beveridge report, which set the blueprint for much of Britain’s welfare state.
He also said his party had for “too long … failed to realize” the need for a strong partnership with businesses, and pledged to work closely with industry. “I know there is no vision of a future where Britain fulfills its potential in which business does not thrive,” he said.
Starmer’s critics on the left of the party may take some convincing, however. Andrew Scattergood, co-chair of the Momentum group, which backed his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, said Labour “can’t win by promising to be better managers of the same system.”