The National:

KEIR Starmer’s Labour leadership so far has been defined by two factors – by not being Jeremy Corbyn, and the pandemic. Labour have at best been level-pegging and often trailing the Conservatives; while Starmer’s ratings for most of 2020 saw him ahead of Boris Johnson, he has now slipped behind him. Any "Boris bounce" from the vaccine roll-out will leave Labour with no room for manoeuvre and in a perilous political situation.

Time for Starmer to step up and make a major speech on the economy, laying out Labour’s critique of the Tories and the dynamic agenda of Labour. Critique should be easy. The UK economy and society is in a fragile state with millions in hardship and worried about their future prospects.

READ MORE: Keir Starmer speech: No mention of Scotland as Labour looks to Britain's future

Tory economics have failed through this government, decade and since Thatcher came to office in 1979. Right-wing apologists can talk pre-COVID of ‘the British economic miracle’ of recent times but this is mostly hot air and solely based on trumpeting the number of jobs created from 2010 to the onset of the pandemic. The underlying strength of the UK economy was fundamentally not altered for the better by Thatcher and successive Tory Governments. Economic growth per annum since 1979 and the election of Thatcher has been markedly lower than economic growth was pre-Thatcher and the years 1945-73 – up to the year of the OPEC oil shock. And that is before one addresses the increasing unequal distribution of growth which mars the economy.

The National:

Yet apart from Starmer going after the low-hanging fruit of criticising the Tories on universal credit and free school meals, Labour has remained mute on the pandemic, wary of politicising a national disaster. Overall Starmer’s speech was one with few new ideas apart from a "British Recovery Bond", leading Joe Pike of SKY News to say it was "big on rhetoric, short on policy", and unlikely to have an impact.

Labour have a problem on Covid and its aftermath. First, the Tories are spinning their big state, high public spending credentials for now. Labour can criticise this for not being enough, with the wrong priorities, or say the Tories will revert to their bad old ways post-Covid, but none of these are very distinctive messages. And they are all predicated on what the Tories do in the future - handing the fate of Labour’s critique to the Tories.

Second, Labour have historically had a problem with the economy – always struggling on economic competence and trying to win the trust of markets – with the exception of the Blair era. This has reinforced the challenge that Labour has always had, of finding a distinctive Labour economic vision and set of policies which can cut through and be seen as credible. Without such a Labour determination the party will always struggle and be unable to win elections just on its traditional strengths of the NHS and compassion.

Starmer is trying to carve out a middle position, declaring that "tax rises or a return to austerity risk throttling off the economy". At the same time Labour’s branding at his speech shows how the party wants to be seen with the slogans: "Secure our economy, Protect our NHS, Rebuild our country" behind Starmer, and mimicking the three-part messaging of official government lines in the pandemic.

Labour faces tough challenges. It has lost four elections in a row; it is highly likely on existing trends that it will lose a fifth. This would mean the party would have been out of office for nineteen years in a row – and by then 37 out of 50 years: 74% of the time. Scotland is lost, Wales under threat, parts of the north of England under challenge, leaving only London as a Labour stronghold.

The National:

Tony Blair won the trust of the markets during his time as leader

The party seems stuck and beguiled by its own past and the myths of it: continually invoking and offering a rose-tinted view of 1945, Clement Attlee and the achievements of his administration: establishing the NHS and welfare state and achieving full employment.

But this is Groundhog Day Labour. Living in a past rather than using the successes of the past to learn lessons and live in the present: being forward thinking, ambitious and taking on the forces of conservatism and vested interests in the party and country. In 1945 Labour was a party of the future presenting the Tories as one of the past; Harold Wilson did the same in 1964, and Tony Blair in 1997 before that all went wrong.

The National:

Labour have still not found a message and politics for the party and UK post-Blair and Brown. It is one which has cost the party and UK politics dear allowing the Conservatives another decade of dominance. The signs are that the constraints that Labour faces – finding an economic agenda which can cut through and challenge the hold of reactionary ideas in Britain’s elites – mean that Keir Starmer and the party will continue to struggle.

None of this should be surprising, but Labour have to be daring, raise their voices, and speak for the majority across the UK who are struggling and who instinctively know that the existing economic and political order does not work for them but only for the privileged few.