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Keir Starmer: This is what I believe

Why we need a new mission-driven politics to renew Britain and defeat the enemies of progress.

By Keir Starmer

I hate being in opposition.

I can see what needs changing with ever greater clarity, but have little agency to do anything about it. It has never been my style to talk about problems without rolling up my sleeves and starting to sort them out. There is just one very small silver lining: more time to listen to people, reflect deeply on where the country needs to go and prepare a plan for real change.

In my job I have the privilege of speaking to people from all walks of life – and so much of what they tell me does not fit into a neat policy category. Instead, it amounts to something both more elusive and, in many ways, more important. It is about a country that has lost something precious: its sense of ambition.

We used to be a nation that revelled in our ability to “punch above our weight”. No longer. Underlying all the chaos of the last few years, what has emerged is a Conservative Party that doesn’t believe we can succeed any more. Muddling through is a way of life that is so ingrained for them, they can’t break free.

I call it “sticking plaster” politics, because there is always a short-term fix but never a long-term cure. Every winter there is an NHS crisis. Every year a quick fix, momentary relief, and then the next winter – the same thing. And repeat. Lurching from crisis to crisis makes too many citizens feel vulnerable and out of control – life too precarious to be enjoyable.

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Many people believe, rightly, that they deserve better. They have been loyal to the country, tightened their belt when the economy was in trouble, made sacrifices during the pandemic, tried to cope when energy prices soared – and yet that loyalty has not been returned. Their sense of ambition is not matched by the government. They don’t believe Britain is run for the benefit of those who work incredibly hard each day to keep the show on the road. In truth, too often they feel invisible in their own country.

[See also: What does Keir Starmer stand for?]

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This government and Rishi Sunak seem determined to embody that Michelangelo quote: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.” 

It is becoming clear that in this complex world, “sticking plaster” politics is the enemy of progress; problems fester and Britain keeps missing vital opportunities to shape a better future.

When I was asked the other day, “What is a Labour leader doing mixing with the financial elite in Davos?” I replied: “Vital repair work.” I was trying to persuade investors that Britain was still open for business despite the carnage of the reckless budgets of 2022. The world is changing rapidly, and our competitors are at the starting line, while we are still in the changing room tying our laces. When I meet business leaders, those wanting to invest in Britain, the message is the same. America is forging ahead. Their Inflation Reduction Act is a call to the world to invest in the United States. Europe is about to follow. And Britain? Ford is cutting jobs. AstraZeneca is setting up factories in Ireland rather than Britain. Investment is going elsewhere. Yet, none of this is inevitable.

Most would agree that the people who have broken something are rarely the best people to fix it, and I don’t believe the current government is capable of providing the leadership Britain requires.

Yet it would be tempting to believe changing the governing party would be enough. It’s what a leader of the opposition is meant to say. “Vote for us and all will be fine!” And don’t get me wrong: a period of good government in which the basics are done well – the economy is not trashed, people can get a GP appointment, our rivers are not awash with raw sewage – would be a welcome start. But truthfully, I don’t believe it would be enough. There needs to be more fundamental change.

That is why, with that aim firmly in mind, the next Labour government will be “mission-driven”. For us, that is a profound statement of intent.

In a political world filled with what can seem like glib slogans, it is hard to make the case for why a particular word or phrase should be invested with real meaning. But I want to try to do just that for “mission-driven government”. There is research and lived experience both in this country and others about how mission-driven government can make a real difference.

Academics such as Mariana Mazzucato have described how mission-driven government can drive real change, shape new markets, make the state more entrepreneurial, build movements. The Social Democrats (SPD) in Germany have used missions to focus the government’s agenda.

[See also: Mariana Mazzucato: “Consultancies depend on weak governments”]

Indeed, we have seen the benefits of missions before: after the Second World War, when Clement Attlee’s government built the NHS and welfare state. New Labour’s commitment to end child poverty is another good example. A mission that required a commitment driven from the heart of government, it brought in all different departments and organisations, and united people around a cause. The result? One million children lifted out of poverty. Real, tangible change that wouldn’t have happened without that mission-driven approach. More recently, the Covid vaccine was driven by an urgent partnership between the state, business and universities. 

So, to be clear, the word mission is not just another word for promise or pledge. The “offer” we make to voters on the doorstep will flow from these ambitious goals.

Missions have the potential to galvanise all parts of government and civil society and provide focus. That means the missions need to be real and rooted in people’s lives – in each case a North Star to keep our eyes on the prize, to prevent the demands of the day-to-day from taking over, or the endless dramas of Westminster politics from distracting us.

Each mission will focus on a long-term problem, and apply a long-term plan. Our missions will tackle complex problems that have no magic-bullet solutions and need many players and agencies, national and local, working on them. They will be common causes to which many people will want to contribute, and, importantly, the missions will have measurable outcomes – ambitious but attainable goals that go beyond the incremental. They will require a huge effort and urgency to succeed. And they will start with tangible first steps that deal with the immediate crises – the cost of living, the NHS – to restore people’s sense of security.

While the evidence suggests this approach works and promises much, it has not been tried as the overall governing philosophy of a nation before. Too often it has been used only to see off evils, and not often enough to seize opportunities.

That is why missions will be at the heart of the Labour Party manifesto and, if Labour wins the next election, we will become Britain’s first mission-driven government.

Importantly, missions will also serve as a decision-making tool, making clear what is mission critical and what isn’t. They will stop the chopping and changing we have seen in recent years. Businesses and families will be able to plan ahead with greater certainty.

Cover illustration by Klawe Rzeczy

Here, then, are Labour’s Five Missions. As I said in my speech on 23 February, two of them already have measurable goals. We will set the goals for the other three in the coming months. Each represents a big problem that needs fixing, one that has been ducked for too long. At the same time, each is a cause that is worth fighting for – the next big progressive step for the country.

[See also: What could go wrong for Keir Starmer?]

1. Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7

There have been good intentions but no one has had the courage to properly push power from Westminster to all parts of the country. Imagine what would happen if we fired up the engines of growth everywhere – no town or city left behind. For the left it’s simply not enough to believe that all will be well if one part of the country prospers, as long as we redistribute the fruits of growth. Our aim must be growth everywhere. That is why our strategy for sustained growth involves some important shifts in approach: providing certainty and stability, not chaos and short-term fixes. Seizing new opportunities, not letting Britain fall behind in the global race. Giving working people skills and opportunities, not leaving potential untapped. Building a resilient trading economy, not a weak economy exposed to global shocks. That is the route to higher living standards, thriving high streets and better public services.

2. Make Britain a clean energy superpower

There is no greater cause for our generation, than to make our world safer for the next. Britain has a real chance of leading the world in clean power: zero carbon electricity by 2030 on the way to net zero. What a statement that would be about Britain – and it would give people cheaper bills, create more jobs and provide a vital lifeline to parts of the country still reeling from the deindustrialisation of the past.

3. Build an NHS fit for the future

Growing numbers don’t believe the NHS will exist in a few years’ time, such is the crisis. With an ageing population, deaths too high from preventable diseases and seven million waiting for hospital treatment, we need a long-term strategy to provide the security people need. Imagine an NHS that really was fit for the future, its values once more shining brightly, but harnessing technology and life sciences, to make it more responsive to people’s needs – able to prevent illnesses earlier as well as cure them faster.

4. Break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage

Labour will always be the party that pushes the frontiers of opportunity, like the “class ceiling” that suppresses too much potential. Childcare, housing, skills and education must all help reverse the rapid decline in social mobility over the last few years. Imagine an education system where every child, in every part of the country, is prepared with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to thrive in this complex world.

5. Make Britain’s streets safe

Insecurity is corrosive. In the coming months, I plan to set out our crime mission, just as I have done with growth. It will be a bold strategy to tackle both crime and its causes.

Our crime mission will tackle head-on the sky-rocketing numbers of criminals who get away without prosecution, the rise in nuisance crimes, the falling trust in the police and the lack of safety that blights too many communities. By failing to reform the police and criminal justice system, a succession of home secretaries and Tory prime ministers, more concerned with stoking culture wars than making our streets safe, has taken an axe to the security that underpins family life and failed to tackle an epidemic of violent attacks against women and girls.

A Labour government will have to be bold reformers in this area so we can make a real difference to people’s sense of security. This will also be at the heart of Labour’s upcoming local election strategy. It is precisely because we understand how badly people have been let down by successive Tory governments that we want to show people change is coming.

By the end of the summer, we will have set out all five missions in full detail. Agree with them or disagree with them, they will be bold stakes in the ground to mark out our long-term plan for Britain. 

What do these five missions and five progressive causes add up to? In the most simple terms: getting our future back. 

[See also: Angela Rayner: “The Tories fear me because I say it how I see it”]

We know from our history that Labour is elected when the public want us to take the next big progressive steps forward for the country – in 1945 the NHS and welfare state; in 1964 a technological revolution; in 1997 the modernisation of the constitution, public services, the economy. If we win the next election, that is the task that will fall to us again. These missions add up to the next big phase of modernisation for Britain. A process of reconnecting to what we are good at as a nation, finding our confidence once more.

The missions are instrumental in giving Britain back a renewed sense of pride and purpose.

One thing has become clearer over the last 13 years: our country can’t continue to be run as an exclusive club in which too few people get an entry ticket. When analysts describe Britain today as a poor nation, much of it worse off than large parts of eastern Europe – but with one small and rich concentration, mostly in the south-east of England – it makes me both angry and even more committed to lasting change. If this situation continues, then there is little hope for either social cohesion or economic success.

So, while the five missions say something important about the future, they also say something equally pressing about who we are as a nation and a people: Britain will only thrive if we unlock the talents of every individual, in all parts of the country.

For me, these missions are personal. They go to the heart of what it is to be a modern political leader. There seems to be a belief that a leader has to fit into one of two categories. Either they are populists, flirting with authoritarianism, dealing in “alternative facts”, debasing standards in public life. Or technocrats: cold, calculating, devoid of emotion, always doing what is safe and pragmatic. This is not the choice I want for Britain, or for my leadership.

There is a different approach. I believe politics needs to embody two things.

First, it must be about values. For me, those come from my life experiences. I talk about respect a lot because I saw how my father felt disrespected because he was a tool maker. He always felt others looked down on him. Growing up, I saw too much unfulfilled potential; too often ambition was stifled; there were too many barriers to working-class kids getting a break.

My dad’s story, and the stories of those I grew up with, is a common story today. It drives a lot of the disaffection in Western countries, which is why Chancellor Scholz has made respect such an important theme in Germany, and why President Biden has talked about the powerlessness of too many people in the US. The first step to revive social democracy is to understand and respect people – not just tell them what you are going to do.

Second, politics must be about problem solving – creative problem solving. Finding new or better solutions to problems that stand in people’s way. Shaping our own destiny by seeking out and then seizing the opportunities of the future. Coming late into politics, I am struck by how often people skirt around the big issues, blinded by ideology, scared of being unpopular; there is an inability to cut through the nonsense and understand different perspectives, by “walking in the shoes” of others so that meaningful change can happen.

Our missions provide a way through – they embody a set of values, common causes and a chance to solve big problems. To govern through missions is to change the very nature of how government operates. They say something not just about what we will do differently, but, crucially, how we will do it.

Command and control has at times been the natural response for politicians feeling the pressure to “deliver”. But we know you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it more, just as you don’t get more out of front-line staff by sending them more and more targets and shouting at them more loudly to deliver. The model has to change. But we can’t lurch the other way and just assume the market will take care of everything without clear national standards people can rely on.

A new approach is needed based on partnership. A partnership where government sets the missions and where we create a climate of trust and innovation – one in which people’s professional judgement and ability to collaborate can be fostered.

My thinking on this has many sources. Some of it draws on my years as head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), a complex public service that handles every prosecution in England and Wales. That period taught me government needs to stop thinking in silos, where departments ignore what they can do to support each other in common objectives because their only focus is internal targets.

It taught me too that we must be unyielding in the pursuit of the ambitious goals set out in our missions, but more flexible than ever in how we achieve them.

We will need to be an administration where experimentation and innovation are encouraged at every stage, evidence is rigorously evaluated, and the centre is relentless at scaling up and pushing out best practice.

I have done some of this before. When I was in charge of thousands of civil servants at the CPS, people were sometimes unwilling to put forward good ideas because they were politically challenging, went against the grain, or had simply never been asked. I went around all the different regional offices and made a point of speaking with the staff at all levels to ask what was the biggest problem they faced, and whether they had a way of solving it. A lot of the best innovations came from staff who just got frustrated with a problem and had worked out a better way to do things.

We will need courage if we are to go beyond the good intentions of previous initiatives, like levelling up, so that power and economic opportunity is genuinely – permanently – pushed out of Westminster to all parts of the country, with wealth created everywhere, by everyone for everyone.

This approach adds up to a new kind of catalytic government.

None of it will be easy. If it was, then it would have been done before. The country is in a very difficult position and there is a widespread sense of despair. It is hard to conjure a sense of hope. And harder still to convince people that all politicians are not the same.

Our missions will require grit and hard work – not grandstanding and grandiose statements – if we are to move on from 13 years of going backwards, and press ahead into a decade of national renewal.

If, like me, you believe Britain can and should be better, then join us on this bold project – mission-driven government to end “sticking plaster” politics. One thing I know for certain: the British people need light at the end of the tunnel, and they need it soon.

[See also: The New Statesman’s left power list]

This essay was originally published in the New Statesman on 1 March 2023.

This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission