It’s not enough for Labour to be a nicer version of the Tories. It must take risks for what is right | Simon Jenkins

It’s not enough for Labour to be a nicer version of the Tories. It must take risks for what is right

Simon Jenkins

Instead of fighting for the centre ground, Keir Starmer should look to the radical changes pushed through under Harold Wilson

Keir Starmer at the Labour party business conference in London, 8 December 2022

The pitch is being rolled for Keir Starmer’s entry to No 10. Titles on the prospect of a Labour Britain already line the bookshop shelves, from Oliver Eagleton’s The Starmer Project to Lisa Nandy’s All In. Who is he really? Is he a socialist in sheep’s clothing, or just another moderate, pragmatic, oh-so-hesitant Labour leader trapped in an ideological no-man’s-land between left and “left-of-centre”?

The one label that no one could pin on Starmer is “radical”. After the trauma of Liz Truss, economic policy has sunk into a grim torpor. Starmer has eschewed alternative economic models, terrified of the reaction of markets and thus, possibly, of voters. He is so fearful of the issue of Brexit – which many Britons who voted for it now regret – that he has become its most effective supporter. On social policy, Labour is all platitude and nothing structural. Britain is drifting down Europe’s league table on health outcomes, drug abuse, prison population and reception of migrants. Yet Labour only promises to do broadly more of the same. A Starmer government would be a more generous sort of Tory one.

We have been here before. In 1964, Harold Wilson brought to an end 13 years of lethargic Tory rule, promising ‘the “white heat” of a “scientific revolution”. In the event, there was not much of that. But in just two years, between 1965 and 1967, something else happened. Roy Jenkins, the youngest home secretary since Churchill, staged a social policy revolution without equal in the 20th century, suspending capital punishment (before it was abolished in 1969) and legalising homosexuality in England and Wales. He ended the ban on abortion and drastically eased divorce. He stopped prison floggings. He abolished theatre censorship. All these were achieved in just two years against fierce opposition from Home Office officials, forcing Jenkins to sack their upper echelons. In a second term in 1974, he was undaunted and went on to pass Britain’s first acts outlawing sex and race discrimination and establishing a new framework for race relations.

Harold Wilson on the campaign trail in Manchester in March 1966

None of these measures had appeared in Labour’s 1964 manifesto. None were “mandated” by the electorate and most were opposed by the Tories and many in Labour’s own ranks. They were not particularly socialist, but rather humanitarian and libertarian, defended by Jenkins as pursuing “a civilised society”. Indeed it was rumoured that Wilson supported them only after being attacked in the press as “competent, not radical”. They helped Labour to an enhanced majority at the 1966 election and transformed Britain’s international image from archaic fuddy-duddy to “swinging”. Jenkins was duly hailed by this newspaper as the “finest home secretary of the century”.

What chance would there be of a radical reformer like Jenkins under Starmer? At the moment, he seems content to court the centre ground, to mimic Blair and listen to the Daily Mail. He seems to not want to frighten the horses. Starmer was hesitant even in his backing for Gordon Brown’s constitutional changes last month, on Lords reform and regional government. He has nothing beyond generalities to offer on devolution and federalism, concepts now entrenched across Europe. The union has just celebrated the centenary of its first breakdown, in Ireland, and faces a possible second. Scotland pleads for radical solutions but from Starmer it gets none.

British politics shares the current consensus, of sound money, welfare austerity and an interventionist state. Timidity reflects the trend in modern democracies towards 50-50 election outcomes. With all political parties battling over a perceived “middle ground”, a shared consensus of sound money and welfare austerity remains. When Truss challenged this, even the Tories shouted her down. This timidity is reflected in the trend in modern democracies towards governments with less than 50% support – as in the UK, Germany and Italy, and a resulting competition for the centre ground.

The lesson of Labour in the 1960s was that reform lay not in ideology but in knowing what was right and being ready to take the risk. Opposition on hanging and homosexuality was fierce, but Jenkins was unfazed by public opinion. Perhaps Starmer should do likewise. He should not breathe a word to the electorate but, like Labour of old, take office, proclaim a more civilised society – and then prove it.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist