Sir Keir Starmer still hasn’t told Yorkshire how he intends to boost its economy - Andrew Vine
A spectacular by-election victory in Rutherglen last week, a weekend opinion poll suggesting he’s on track for a landslide to rival Tony Blair’s in 1997 and a Conservative Party that finished its own conference looking exhausted and divided give Sir Keir every reason for confidence that he’s bound for Downing Street.
But beyond the sense that Labour is gathering momentum towards winning the next election, Sir Keir still has not done anything like enough to tell Yorkshire how he intends to give our economy the boost it needs.
For all his confidence, and justified optimism that Labour is on its way back to government, Sir Keir also looks like a man who shies away from being specific about what he’ll do, for fear of frightening away cautious middle-of-the-road voters.
He’s an Opposition leader whose knack for asking all the right questions to expose Government failings is undermined by a reluctance to spell out what he would do to put things right.
And if he is to win over the Yorkshire voters he needs to make him Prime Minister, Sir Keir is going to have to start detailing exactly what he has to offer our region.
Everything we have heard from the conference so far – both in speeches and advance briefings – has been bog-standard. Pledges of more council houses, reform of the NHS to make funds go further and sound public finances are not big new ideas, but might have been copied-and-pasted from any Labour manifesto of the past 30 years.
Sorry, this just isn’t good enough for a North that is acutely aware of how far it has fallen behind other areas of the country, through no fault of its own.
Where is the transformative vision for the North in what Labour has to say? Where are the plans to unleash the economic might of getting on for a quarter of Britain’s population?
How is the North-South gap in investment, which has held us back for so long, and undermined the prospects of generations of young people, to be closed?
These are the big issues that Sir Keir must address if he is to convince the North that a vote for Labour marks a fresh start after the past 13 years of Conservative rule, especially the failures over levelling-up, and that a brighter future awaits under his direction.
In particular, he has questions to answer over Yorkshire’s transport deficiencies and how he plans to solve them in the wake of Rishi Sunak’s axing of the remaining northern leg of HS2.
The cancellation was a gift to Sir Keir, relieving him of a difficult decision if he wins office. It was notable that he lost no time in regretfully saying Labour would not reinstate the plan, blaming Tory incompetence.
But wait a minute. Let’s not forget that in the run-up to the Tory conference, when the axe looked certain to fall, The Yorkshire Post revealed that Labour was refusing to make its own commitment to bringing high speed rail to the North.
That raises questions about how, precisely, Labour plans to improve rail links in order to get the north’s economy growing.
Is Sir Keir only going to embrace the changed spending priorities set out by Mr Sunak, under which the £36bn saved by axing HS2 will supposedly produce significant improvements, among them electrification of the Trans-Pennine rail routes, the tram system for Leeds and West Yorkshire and a new station for Bradford? Or will he, after years of lambasting Conservative failures on transport, go further and announce a raft of new money?
Yorkshire voters are likely to be pretty underwhelmed if Labour’s offer of transport improvements amounts to sticking to plans set out by the Conservatives, which don’t amount to transformational change, but the left-overs of the badly-botched delivery of high-speed rail.
Public disenchantment with the damage inflicted on the country by the merry-go-round of Conservative leaders in the past few years has brought Sir Keir a long way.
But it will only take him so far. If our region is to heed his call that it is time for a change and he is the man to deliver it, we need to hear how he intends to do so.
Cautiousness, an aversion to revealing specific policies and even timidity have been hallmarks of Sir Keir’s tenure as Labour leader. He’s been fortunate that the disarray of the Government has done much to obscure that.