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Keir Starmer’s method has worked so far – now begins his toughest test | Rafael Behr

The sky was reliably clear over May Day parades in the Soviet Union, not because it never rains in Moscow but because the Kremlin would order the dispersal of any clouds. This was done with blasts of silver iodide, or dry ice, provoking precipitation in the morning so none fell on Red Square in the afternoon.

That is what “making the weather” involves in authoritarian states. The supreme ruler dictates what will appear in the news bulletin and the subsequent meteorological forecast.

Setting the agenda is trickier in democracies, where the market for public attention is competitive. It is harder for oppositions than governments. The hypothetical realm of what might happen under a different government is rarely more relevant to the distracted voter than whatever the actual prime minister is doing right now. Governments can make laws; oppositions can only make promises, which are a much-debased currency in British politics.

On the metric that counts, Keir Starmer is succeeding in a field where most fail. He is preferred to Rishi Sunak as a possible prime minister. Labour has a commanding poll lead over the Tories. Much of that speaks to voters recoiling from the smell of a rotten government, but a worse opposition leader could still have squandered the advantage.

Critics lament the absence of boldness in Starmer’s prospectus, but the pressing public demand is for inoffensive competence. That is not something swing voters associate with Labour’s more radical tendency.

Excavating the party from the sinkhole of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was the first phase of what Labour strategists describe as a three-stage plan. Phase two was prosecuting the case that the Tories were unfit for government. Phase three is filling that vacancy with a credible Labour offer.

In that account, there is a certain amount of retrofitting coherence on what was, in reality, a gradual dawning in Starmer’s mind of what needed to be done. He was sincere in the leadership contest that he won with pledges of continuity with Corbynism, but then unsentimentally ruthless once he understood that the left was anchoring him in a zone of perpetual defeat.

With an election coming into view, the project is now in phase three. This is based around the five “missions” that Starmer set out a year ago: green energy, a soaring economy, an NHS that works, safe streets and “opportunity for all”. These pillars are to be clad with policy to make the platform from which Starmer can rally the nation.

If you hadn’t noticed this happening, it is because other things also keep happening – war in the Middle East, Stormont reconvening, endless rows about immigration.

Phase three is when Labour makes the weather, instead of just cruising in the prevailing anti-Tory wind. But this is also where the advantage of being anodyne and the imperative of getting noticed cancel each other out.

The problem is illustrated in the saga of £28bn annual investment in a “green industrial revolution” that was pledged in 2021 and subsequently caveated to the brink of extinction. It is now an aspiration subject to a test of fiscal prudence.

Keir Starmer giving a speech in front of a poster that says ‘Powering a better future.’
‘Critics lament the absence of boldness in Starmer’s prospectus, but the pressing public demand is for inoffensive competence.’ Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Depending on whom you ask, the £28bn figure is either a beacon of idealistic ambition or a budget albatross around the neck of a party that is vulnerable to charges of reckless borrowing. The latter view weighs heavily on the shadow Treasury team. Meanwhile, those tasked with planning the election campaign worry that a £28bn bill will get more traction as a scare tactic on Tory leaflets than as a pledge on Labour ones.

It doesn’t help that the policy’s most evangelical advocate is Ed Miliband. The shadow energy secretary and former leader has a certain untouchable seniority as someone who has actually run a Whitehall department, on a team that lacks practical experience of government.

But Labour’s upper echelons also include veterans of the 2015 general election defeat. They complain that Miliband’s main area of expertise is throwing away opinion-poll leads, and want his political butterfingers kept away from Starmer’s manifesto.

Starmer himself navigates a convoluted line between defending the idea that growth can be unlocked if government borrows to invest, while trying not to get snagged on the totemic £28bn figure.

It can be simultaneously true that the state must cofinance transition to a low-carbon future, and also that voters struggle to discern a retail offer in that argument. It can be true that Starmer needs a mandate to enact big changes and also that the public get nervous around Labour leaders writing big cheques.

Starmer is striving to keep a flagship policy afloat without handing the Tories ammunition to use against him. It is a reasonable balance to want to strike, but balance requires nuance; and, sadly, nuance doesn’t make the weather.

Starmer’s judgment has been shrewd enough to get him closer to victory than his denigrators imagined possible nearly four years ago. That wins him loyalty, but not much benefit of the doubt. There is a nervousness, a brittleness in Labour’s mood that expresses more than the traditional dread of a sudden contraction in the poll lead (although that fear is real enough). Continuing Conservative implosion is a plausible scenario but not guaranteed. A moribund government feeding attack lines to a feral press can still take chunks out of the opposition in a savage campaign.

This is the moment when command of the weather becomes vital. Labour MPs have their instructions: don’t stride into traps; don’t take the bait on tax cuts or asylum rules; don’t accept Downing Street’s framing of the election as a test of whether Labour can be trusted. Pose instead the question of whether Britain can cope with another term of Tory misrule.

That is all sound advice, but changing the subject in politics – steering the national conversation on to your issue, on your terms – is a job only the leader can do. It needs an aerial projection of the rare chemical element that disperses ominous clouds and clears the air. It is a quality Starmer has yet to display.

He enjoys formidable control of the Labour apparatus. Prising Corbynite hands away from levers of party machinery was what phase one meant in practice. There is now an impressive level of message discipline, delivered with dreary automaticity. There is loyalty, but it often sounds shallow: gratitude that the plan is working, without depth in feeling for what lies behind the plan.

There is an inscrutability around the leader that means even those who should be called Starmerites don’t seem to know his mind. They can’t intuit his positions in advance, which means they don’t radiate the belief that constitutes a dedicated following, cushioning a leader in times of adversity.

This isn’t a problem when the party is marching in close formation towards victory. It will be a problem soon enough, when the going gets harder and the rain starts falling on Labour’s parade.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist