Keir Starmer’s Caution Threatens Labour’s Election Prospects, Warns 1997 Campaign Veterans

Key Figures from Tony Blair’s 1997 Campaign Raise Concerns About Keir Starmer’s Leadership and Labour’s Policy Direction as the Party Gears Up for a Critical Conference in Liverpool.

Tony Blair is greeted by supporters as he arrives in Downing Street as prime minister for the first time in May 1997. Photograph: Adam Butler/PA Archive/Press Association Images
Supporters welcome Tony Blair as he enters Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister in May 1997. Photo credit: Adam Butler/PA Archive/Press Association Images.

Liverpool, October 5, 2023 – Key figures from Tony Blair’s historic 1997 election victory have sounded a warning for current Labour leader Keir Starmer. They caution that Starmer’s cautious approach could jeopardize the party’s chances in the next election and that he risks drawing the wrong lessons from Blair’s success.

Individuals who played pivotal roles in Blair’s election victory argue that the Labour party is not adequately prepared for government. They emphasize the need for Labour to establish a clear and compelling policy platform to regain the trust of voters.

These comments come as Keir Starmer prepares to attend the Labour party conference in Liverpool, a critical event in his political career. Many within the party are hoping that Starmer will use his upcoming speech to define his vision more vividly and to draw distinct lines of differentiation from the Conservative party, particularly on issues like the completion of HS2 and the removal of the two-child benefit cap.

Alastair Campbell, former director of communications for Blair, stressed the importance of robust policy positions. He stated, “You want policy, and you want your policies to be known about, and you want to be able to defend them and to argue them.” Campbell expressed concerns that the Labour party today lacks the same level of focus and determination that characterized Blair’s campaign in 1996 and 1997.

Peter Mandelson, who served as Labour’s campaign director in the 1997 election and is a close associate of Starmer, questioned the party’s readiness for government. He acknowledged that the election is not imminent but urged Labour members to realize the substantial effort required to prepare a comprehensive program of government policies.

As Labour members gather in Liverpool for a conference considered one of the most crucial in recent history, the party currently enjoys a significant lead in the polls, potentially setting the stage for a landslide victory in a general election.

Starmer has been revising or abandoning various Labour policies, including the pledge to abolish tuition fees and the delayed implementation of a £28 billion green fund. He has also committed not to raise income or wealth taxes to fund increased public spending and dropped plans to revoke private schools’ charitable status.

After Labour’s recent loss in the Uxbridge by-election, which focused on the party’s clean-air policies in London, Starmer expressed concern, saying, “We are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour party end up on each and every Tory leaflet.”

Starmer has sought unofficial advice from key figures from the 1997 election, including Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. Some have drawn parallels between Starmer’s approach and Blair’s in 1996 and early 1997, when Blair was likened to a museum curator carefully navigating a slippery floor with a priceless Ming vase.

Starmer emphasized that he engages with Blair and Gordon Brown, not specifically about policies from that era, but about the pace, intensity, and preparation needed for leadership.

However, Campbell argues that Starmer’s caution does not align with Blair’s approach during that period. He pointed out that they welcomed the Tories’ policy proposals because it provided an opportunity to engage and argue their own positions.

Some observers are urging Starmer to take a bolder stance on taxation and government spending, given the distinct economic conditions compared to 1997. In May 1997, the UK had experienced 19 consecutive quarters of economic growth, and inflation was below 3%.

Lord Falconer, a former Labour minister and Blair’s housemate, noted that in 1997, Labour committed to matching the Conservatives’ tax and spending position, but he cautioned that simply mirroring the Conservative agenda might not resonate with the public in today’s economic climate.

David Miliband, Blair’s former head of policy, suggested that Labour should not focus solely on replicating the 1997 model but should also consider lessons from 1974 when Labour won elections amid high inflation, labor disputes, and rising unemployment. Miliband stressed the importance of offering a compelling and credible vision, just as Labour did in 1997.

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Starmer defended his approach in an interview with ITV News Granada, stating, “I’ve had enough of politicians who walk around a problem screaming about it but don’t fix it. I want to fix problems and I work with other people to do that.”

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