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

TThe sky was always clear during May Day parades in the Soviet Union, not because it never rains in Moscow, but because the Kremlin would order all the clouds to disperse. This was done with explosions of silver iodide, or dry ice, causing precipitation in the morning, so that none fell on Red Square in the afternoon.

This is what “making good weather” entails in authoritarian states. The supreme ruler dictates what will appear in the news bulletin and the resulting weather forecasts.

Setting the agenda is trickier in democracies, where the market for public attention is competitive. It is more difficult for oppositions than for governments. The hypothetical realm of what might happen under a different government is rarely more relevant to the distracted voter than what the Prime Minister is doing now. Governments can legislate; the oppositions can only make promises, which are very degraded currency in British politics.

On the part that matters, Keir Starmer succeeds in an area where most fail. He is preferred over Rishi Sunak as possible Prime Minister. Labor has a considerable lead over the Conservatives in the polls. This largely reflects voter recoil from the stench of a rotten government, but a worse opposition leader could still have squandered the advantage.

Critics lament the lack of audacity in Starmer's prospectus, but the public's pressing demand is for innocuous competence. This is not something swing voters associate with Labour's more radical leaning.

Pulling the party out of the abyss of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership was the first phase of what Labor strategists describe as a three-step plan. The second phase was to pursue the case that the Conservatives were unfit to govern. The third phase is to fill this vacancy with a credible Labor offer.

In this account there is a certain leveling consistency about what was, in reality, a gradual realization in Starmer's mind of what needed to be done. He was sincere in the leadership race which he won with promises of continuity with Corbynism, but then ruthlessly and without sentimentality once he understood that the left was anchoring him in a zone of perpetual defeat.

With the elections approaching, the project is now in phase three. This is built around the five “missions” set out by Starmer a year ago: green energy, a booming economy, a functioning NHS, safe streets and “opportunity for all”. These pillars must be equipped with a policy that will provide the platform from which Starmer can rally the nation.

If you haven't noticed that, it's because other things keep happening – the war in the Middle East, the takeover of Stormont, the endless rows over immigration.

The third phase is where Labor determines the weather, instead of just riding the prevailing anti-Tory wind. But this is also where the advantage of being innocuous and the imperative to be noticed cancel each other out.

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

“Critics bemoan the lack of boldness in Starmer's prospectus, but the public's pressing demand is for innocuous competence.” Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Depending on who you ask, the £28 billion figure is either a beacon of idealistic ambition or a fiscal albatross around the neck of a party vulnerable to accusations of reckless borrowing. This latter view weighs heavily on the Phantom Treasure team. Meanwhile, those tasked with planning the election campaign fear a £28 billion bill will attract more interest as a scare tactic on Tory leaflets rather than a commitment on Labor ones.

It doesn't help that the most evangelical defender of this policy is Ed Miliband. The shadow energy secretary and former leader has some untouchable seniority as someone who has led a Whitehall department, in a team that lacks practical experience of government.

But the upper echelons of the Labor Party also include veterans of the 2015 general election defeat. They complain that Miliband's main area of ​​expertise is throwing opinion poll results into oblivion, and want his fingers policies are kept out of Starmer's manifesto.

Starmer himself walks a convoluted line between defending the idea that growth can be unlocked if the government borrows to invest, while trying not to get hung up on the totem figure of £28 billion.

It may be simultaneously true that the state must co-finance the transition to a low-carbon future, and also that voters have difficulty discerning a retail offer in this argument. It may be true that Starmer needs a mandate to enact big changes and that the public is nervous about Labor leaders signing big checks.

Starmer is struggling to keep a flagship policy afloat without giving the Tories ammunition to use against him. It is reasonable to want to find a balance, but balance requires nuance; and unfortunately, shades don't make good weather.

Starmer's judgment was shrewd enough to put him closer to victory than his critics thought possible almost four years ago. This earns him loyalty, but not much benefit of the doubt. There is a nervousness, a fragility in the mood of the Labor Party which expresses more than the traditional fear of a sudden contraction of the poll lead (although this fear is real enough). The continued implosion of the Conservatives is a plausible but not guaranteed scenario. A moribund government that feeds a savage press with lines of attack can still eliminate part of the opposition during a savage campaign.

This is the time when weather control becomes vital. Labor MPs have their instructions: don't fall into the traps; don't take the bait on tax cuts or asylum rules; don't accept Downing Street's presentation of the election as a test of whether Labor can be trusted. Instead, ask yourself whether Britain can cope with another term of Tory mismanagement.

This is good advice, but changing the subject in politics – steering the national debate on your issue, on your terms – is a task only the leader can do. It requires an aerial projection of the rare chemical element that disperses threatening clouds and purifies the air. This is a quality that Starmer has yet to display.

He enjoys tremendous control over the Labor apparatus. Removing Corbynite hands from the levers of the party machinery was what the first phase meant in practice. There is now an impressive level of message discipline, delivered with automatic dreariness. There is loyalty, but it often seems superficial: gratitude that the plan is working, without a deep feeling for what lies behind the plan.

There is an inscrutable quality about the leader that means even those who should be called Starmerites do not seem to know his mind. They cannot guess his positions in advance, which means they do not radiate the conviction that constitutes a devoted following, protecting a leader in times of adversity.

This is not a problem when the party marches in close formation to victory. This will be a problem soon enough, when things get tough and rain starts to fall on the Labor parade.

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