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What I Go To School For

January 5th 2023

Yesterday, a grateful nation heard from peppy youth pastor Rishi Sunak. Today it was the turn of exasperated headmaster Keir Starmer to lay out his stall for 2023. Shirt-sleeves rolled up, stern face on, GCSE Design and Technology backdrop. He had two key messages for the assembled pupils and faculty.

One: St. Albion’s is without doubt a failing school - and that is the fault of the management that he hopes to supplant. Two: because it is their fault, it doesn’t have to stay like this - failure is not inevitable.


Starmer presented himself as the man to turn around the consequences of what he has termed ‘sticking-plaster politics’. The man with a plan; the man who has done it before in the other schools he’s run; the man who won’t stand for continued failure. Like Sunak, the emphasis was on delivery. Unlike Sunak, Starmer is able to present a broad programme of wholesale reform across a wide sweep of issues. He won’t be judged on success in these endeavours in eighteen months’ time. He has the luxury of being able to paint a bigger picture. The next inspection will judge the Conservative Party on its record, not the Labour Party on their’s - for the first time, arguably, since 2010. When Starmer talks of ‘missions’ and ‘a decade of national renewal’ he is channelling Harold Wilson via executive management-speak. It kind of works.

But for all that Starmer’s delivery is better than his opponent’s - and for all his broader, more ambitious message - some of this new headmaster’s solutions felt a bit… well… pat.

It is probably the case that further devolution and reform of central government is necessary. Whether it is a vote-winning basis for a landslide majority is another matter. The green industrial revolution that he promises has enormous economic potential and moral value. It is also, broadly, what the Labour Party offered voters in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

But it is a sign of how the mood has changed that while political journalists ribbed Sunak for borrowing so liberally from others in his New Year’s speech, Starmer will get some credit for ostentatiously stealing ‘Take Back Control’ from his erstwhile enemies in Vote Leave. He is the frontrunner. Labour are the favourites. And the tide is, therefore, if not behind them, not against them. And while it is fashionable to attribute all of this to the comic-book collapse of the Conservatives, Starmer has to take some credit too. He is right that his big strength is in how he runs the organisations he leads. He has fundamentally changed the Labour Party as an organisation and in the perceptions of voters. He has been strict. He has been indefatigable. He has been stubborn. And that has won him permission not just to be heard, but amplified, in a way that neither of his two immediate predecessors benefited from.

Keir Starmer is disappointed in the Conservative Party. They’ve let him down, they’ve let themselves down, they’ve let the school down. But he has a plan to turn it all around. Some of it may have the whiff of cliche - a new uniform and a Latin motto outside do not an outstanding academy make. But his plans are at once more concrete and more ambitious than those sermonised yesterday by Sunak. And today gave the real sense that Labour are ready to transition, properly, from opposition to government-in-waiting this year.

But no running in the corridors, please, and no getting over-excited. In the end, there’s only one exam that matters.