Keir Starmer's caution could be the only way to Labour government and genuine change

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer  is determined not to throw away the party' lead. Picture:  Jonathan Brady/PA.Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer  is determined not to throw away the party' lead. Picture:  Jonathan Brady/PA.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is determined not to throw away the party' lead. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA. | PA
With a general election looming, Labour is still well ahead in the polls

Sir Keir Starmer is a determined politician with one objective: to win the general election, defeat the Tories and take Labour into power at Westminster.

Polls have put Labour a consistent 20 points ahead of the Conservatives for about 18 months now, but Keir Starmer knows that margin will narrow as polling day draws closer. And everything the Labour leader says and does is calculated to avoid throwing away the party's lead.

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There are plenty both in the Labour party and sympathetic to it who think he is being too cautious and making too many compromises – like watering down the flagship pledge to spend £28 billion a year on green investment, ruling out a wealth tax and ditching the nationalisation of public utilities.

These critics believe the scale of Labour's projected win means it could be much bolder.  But Keir Starmer is taking no risks. Labour hopes have been raised and dashed too many times before.

When the party first came to power – 100 years ago this week – there were some who argued against taking office. Labour was going to be a minority government which would have to win support issue by issue; it would not be able to implement socialist policies and would inevitably have to compromise to survive.

But leader Ramsay MacDonald believed the party would not be taken seriously if it passed up the chance to form a government. He wanted it to accept the challenge and, despite its limited scope for action, show that Labour was competent and could be trusted with power.

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The party agreed it could not pursue key policies such as nationalisation or the "capital levy" – the 1924 version of a wealth tax – but it managed to achieve an impressive amount during its 10 months in office.

The Wheatley housing act provided councils with subsidies which enabled a huge expansion of affordable council housing over the next decade. Pensions and benefits were increased and many of the restrictive rules surrounding them removed. Councils were given powers to raise the school leaving age to 15.

Labour also cut taxes, extended welfare services, increased protection from eviction and introduced regulation of privately-owned public transport.

MacDonald and his colleagues no doubt wanted to do more, but the record suggests that even in difficult circumstances, significant advances can be made which will make a real difference to many people.  And although it was short-lived, that first Labour government proved the party was fit for power and paved the way for future Labour administrations. 

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The tension between the commitment to genuine radical change and the need to achieve and retain power to implement it has been an ever-present one for Labour. 

But Labour-leaning commentators argue that despite the constraints and compromises, every Labour government has seen an improvement in the lives of working people.

And they argue that there is therefore good reason to hope a Keir Starmer government too would end up achieving a lot more than the internal critics fear.

He knows that Labour could have the most impressive programme of bold new policies possible to imagine, but unless it can win the election it means nothing.

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