January 5, 2024 - 7:00am

As Sir Keir Starmer delivered a major speech yesterday, one line leapt out: “I promise this: a politics which treads a little lighter on all our lives.” 

It’s a nice turn of phrase — and a superficially attractive offer, too. Who could disagree that politics has been “exhausting” in recent years? And if even the hardened politicos think that, how must the average voter feel?

But in blaming the recent tone of politics on “nationalism and populism”, Starmer is mistaking the symptom for the problem. While it is generally a sign of good political health when the apolitical majority can tune out of current affairs, that is also when institutions and systems of government operate with less scrutiny. Then, problems begin to build up. 

Consider the New Labour years. While there were always things to keep journalists occupied, Tony Blair’s time in office was marked (with the obvious exception of Iraq) by a period of broad consensus. Even David Cameron was first elected Tory leader promising to be the “heir to Blair”.

Yet so many of the foundations of the current discontent were laid in that period. The current explosion in house prices can partly be attributed to New Labour’s chronic failure to build, or its demolition of over 100,000 council homes. Likewise, the onset of mass immigration has come after ministers refused to apply transition controls to new EU entrants in 2004.

At the same time, Blair pushed through major changes to our constitution, including devolution and the Supreme Court, with extraordinarily little regard for the long-term consequences. Would it not have been better to have had the controversy then, rather than 10 years down the line?

If Starmer does become prime minister following the election, he will be running a country with myriad problems that the public is perfectly justified in being angry about. Despite feeble boasts from politicians about “growth”, real wages have been stagnant since 2008 and aren’t projected to start rising again until 2028. That’s 20 years of stagnant incomes in the face of rising taxes, increased costs, and now the pressure of inflation.

Energy bills are sky-high because successive governments have failed to build any new power plants. Net Zero has been waved through by MPs with no practical plan to deliver it. People are paying a record share of their post-tax income on rent, and putting off having children because they can’t afford it. One statistic sums things up: for young adults aged 18-34 in 1997, the most common living situation was in a couple, with children. Today, it is living with their parents.

These are all good reasons to be angry. It’s easy for politicians such as Starmer to blame Brexit (or “nationalism”), yet the vote to leave the EU was a seismic shock to the political establishment, and it happened precisely because voters were unhappy with the status quo.

Yesterday, Starmer suggested a return to the business-as-usual complacency that got us into this mess in the first place, whereas Britain needs a government which grasps the scale of the challenge and is prepared to do whatever is necessary to turn things around. That will inevitably mean picking some important battles and, for that matter, a measure of anger. If Starmer isn’t prepared for that, he doesn’t deserve to be prime minister.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.