KEIR Starmer has a high chance of becoming the UK prime minister. The Tories are still bitterly divided and toxic, Sunak is unproven and weak, and Labour’s lead – while narrowing post-Truss – has held up.

In such circumstances, what Starmer says and stands for matters, as does the wider Labour agenda, and his interview on Sunday gave an insight into his priorities.

Asked by BBC Scotland’s Martin Geissler about his attitudes on Brexit, and Scottish independence: “Why do you protect democracy across the UK and deny it to the people of Scotland?” Starmer referred to last year’s Scottish Parliament elections, saying: “All the parties said the priority had to be recovery after Covid” – including Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

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Then Starmer, in a concise statement, pinned himself to Brexit and Conservative Party xenophobia on migration: “We don’t want open borders. Freedom of movement has gone, and it is not coming back, and I think we are recruiting too many people from overseas into for example the NHS.”

This statement is important to unpack before we return to Scotland. Starmer is allowing himself to be defined on migration by how the Tories want to caricature him: as a supporter of “open borders”, leaving the UK powerless.

He signed Labour up to the Tory hard Brexit which has cost the UK so dear, hurt its international reputation, and undermined the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. And he invoked the lost Gordon Brown language of “British jobs for British workers”, which itself aped Nigel Farage (below).

The National: Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

Some of the big pictures of the above can be seen as predictable. Labour are trying to close down what they see as any weak flanks they have for a Tory attack: immigration, Brexit and foreign workers, along with Scotland.

Just as New Labour was seen by Thatcher as her greatest achievement, so Starmer’s Labour will be seen as the ultimate triumph of Farage. Some in Labour share this concern, with former Labour MSP Neil Findlay calling out Starmer’s comments as “dog-whistle politics”.

Yet there are big differences between the two phases of Labour. While Starmer might think he is invoking the 1994-97 logic of Blair and Brown – strategically hugging the Tories close – New Labour in that period used this to have a disciplined, distinctive offer. Then there was a host of Labour plans: a windfall tax on the privatised utilities, a New Deal for the unemployed, a national minimum wage, devolution to Scotland and Wales and more. This is the chasm between then and now.

Pre-1997 New Labour invited much criticism from the left for Gordon Brown’s commitment to stick with Tory public spending for two years, inviting the moniker “the Iron Chancellor”.

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Today Labour have already abandoned so much territory, and we have not yet got to their economic offer, which will be even more minimal and following the Tories. Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor, is a former Bank of England economist, so her priorities will be shaped by Threadneedle Street and the Treasury.

Does Labour have a unique offer, distinct from the Tories? On the economy, public spending and taxation, public services, democracy and where the UK sees itself on the international stage, all Labour seem to aspire to is a more humane version of the current Tories.

One pivotal area where Labour’s conservatism really has consequences is the state of the public finances. The Tory crashing of the economy, not just under Trussonomics but also 12 years of low growth before that, has produced a situation where public debt now tops 100% of GDP and George Osborne (below), architect of Tory austerity 2010-16 can say “the country has run out of money again” to justify past and future cuts.

The National: George Osborne

Labour rarely, if ever, challenges this ideological statement. It draws from the “household economics” view of the UK’s finances popularised by Thatcherism and is repeated every day by Tories with comments such as “we have to balance the books” and “we have to pay our way in the world and cannot continue to borrow”.

It invokes this mythical “black hole” of £60 billion in public finances, which has to be filled now, no matter how unpleasant the medicine is. Journalist Paul Mason observes that this “fiscal black hole” is “fictional” and “the product of tight fiscal rules imposed to destroy the public sector”.

Another political take is possible. UK public debt hit an all-time high in 1945 after the Second World War at 245% of GDP. That year also saw the election of a Labour government led by Clement Attlee, which did not postpone its plans due to economic constraints. Rather, it implemented full employment, set up the welfare state and the NHS, and nationalised key industries.

This clearly underlines that the coming brutal Tory austerity is a political choice and a project based around framing UK finances as “household economics” to create a narrative to cut back the state. Osborne now presents himself as someone who acted for technocratic reasons, but at the time, he was honest about his ideological intentions of shrinking the state back to 35% of GDP and levels not seen since the 1930s.

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A Labour government which accepts this backdrop will be constrained by failed Conservative policies and orthodox economics. Any alternative approach has to be made now to break with the ideological precepts of Thatcherism and Osbornomics while advocating for public investment, taxing wealth and calling time on the offshore UK economy, which contributes little of benefit to the UK population.

Then there is how UK Labour understands Scotland. There is little insight in Starmer’s team of what is going on in Scotland, with them taking the word of Anas Sarwar that he is battling away against the “separatists”.

Starmer has no grasp that Scottish Labour stand for next to nothing apart from being against the SNP and independence, and in so doing, a distinct social democratic challenge to the nationalists goes missing.

Starmer’s Scottish predicament comes from a place of weakness. He wants to close down a Tory attack line that paints Labour in a hung Parliament as being beholden to the SNP – the effective David Cameron “coalition of chaos” campaign of 2015 wielded against Ed Miliband.

It does not matter how incongruous this Tory mantra is against the reality of Tory chaos and infighting in the years hence. Their desperation and self-interest will lead to them amplifying such a message; Labour worry about this and feel they need to close it down as much as possible.

The Tories believe they own the British constitution and what constitutes “the national interest”, and can say anything to cling to power. This conceit has always shaped how Labour tentatively view such matters ceding ground to the Tories – patriotism, the idea of Britain itself, and the Union flag – but it has got worse – witness Labour delegates singing God Save The King at the opening of their annual conference.

A Labour government looks like a distinct possibility after the next General Election. Coming to office in, most likely, 2024GE has to be held by Jan 2025 will be against a backdrop of savage Tory cuts, a divided, bitter society and a diminished Britain at home and abroad. It will have similarities to the situations in which Labour was elected in 1964 and 1974, where the party’s room for manoeuvre was heavily curtailed.

A Labour government, despite all its constraints, compromises and conservatism is different from today’s toxic Tories but would have a bumpy ride, restricted by the Treasury, the City of London and the forces of the reactionary right.

Such a moment – a series of crises enveloping Britain – should be the opportunity for radicalism, not clinging to the old wreckage of broken Britain.

And in that situation, radicals, democrats and egalitarians will need to join hands and cooperate to navigate the broken economy and politics of the UK. Cometh that time, Starmer and company will need Scottish votes – and the SNP.