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Labour manifesto: Starmer is party’s all-powerful ringmaster but there’s no high-wire act under his leadership | Politics News

Let’s party like it’s 1997. That could be the message from Labour’s 2024 general election.

Back in ’97, the front cover of Labour’s manifesto showed a full-page photo of a mean and moody-looking Tony Blair.

The title then was “New Labour, because Britain deserves better” and the campaign song was D-Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better.

This year, after 14 years of Conservative rule under five prime ministers, Labour’s manifesto has a one-word title – “Change”.

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But the photo on the front is straight out of the 1997 New Labour playbook: Sir Keir, jacket off, sleeves rolled up, serious – stern, even. Very Tony Blair.

Sir Keir is no Tony Blair, of course. Some Labour veterans compare him to Mr Blair’s predecessor, another lawyer, the late John Smith.

And at last week’s seven-way election debate including the smaller parties, Nigel Farage dismissed Sir Keir as “Blair without the flair”.

Indeed, there’s nothing flashy about the contents of the 133-page 2024 manifesto. No big surprises. No big controversies either.

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Labour manifesto vs the rest

Sky News political editor Beth Rigby challenged Sir Keir asking: “Is this a Captain Caution manifesto, designed to protect your poll lead?” His answer was a serious one. Again, nothing flashy.

“This is a serious plan,” he declared. “I’m running as a candidate to be prime minister, not a candidate to run the circus.”

Circus? Well, these days Sir Keir is certainly Labour’s all-powerful ringmaster. But there’s no high-wire act under his leadership. And critics would say no magic either.

Earlier, in his 20-minute speech at the fancy Co-op HQ in Manchester – the venue was the only thing that was flashy about the launch – Sir Keir’s one memorable joke was aimed at Reform UK’s Nigel Farage, who the Labour leader clearly regards as a clown.

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He said: “Some people may say ‘Where’s the rabbit out of the hat?’ If you want politics as pantomime, I hear Clacton’s nice this time of year.”

Besides the full-page photo of Sir Keir on the front page of the manifesto, the other memorable image in the document is the photo of the Labour leader deep in thoughtful conversation at the D-Day ceremony in Normandy with Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelenskyy.

Woah! What a coup. It was a meeting that Rishi Sunak might have had if he hadn’t bunked off early to record an electioneering TV interview, in which his most newsworthy disclosure was that he missed having Sky TV at home when he was growing up.

Another powerful image and a point well made. Would Tony Blair have missed the opportunity to rub shoulders and be photographed on the international stage with the presidents of the United States and France and the German chancellor? Of course not.

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Starmer: ‘We can grow our economy’

In another interview after the manifesto launch, Sir Keir repeated a line he used in the Sky News leaders’ event the previous evening, that he wouldn’t promise what he couldn’t deliver.

One potential controversy – at least a potential clash with the Labour left – is his refusal to scrap the two-child benefit cap, an issue that was also raised at the Sky News Grimsby event.

He’s not making commitments he can’t be sure he can keep, he insisted. Smack of firm government there.

But where he’s likely to be dragged into controversy is not what is in the manifesto, but what isn’t, such as which taxes will go up. He’s pledging not to raise income tax, VAT and national insurance, but that’s all.

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That was a point seized on by the Tory chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, who’s not been particularly high-profile during the election campaign, as he’s facing a tough battle to hold on to the new Godalming and Ash seat he’s defending. Labour should be thankful for that.

“What’s most important is not what’s in Labour’s manifesto, but it’s what they have kept out of it,” said Mr Hunt. “They’re refusing to rule out taxing your job, your home, your pension, your car, your business and they think they can get away with it without anyone holding them to account.”

Well, he would say that wouldn’t he? In fact, both Sir Keir and the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have been pretty clear, for example, that they won’t end the freeze on fuel duty.

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Another classic New Labour tactic is when something’s a bit controversial, hold a review. It’s estimated there are no fewer than 14 reviews proposed in the manifesto, on issues such as pensions, parental leave, school syllabuses, universal credit and sentencing.

So Labour is keeping some of its more contentious plans firmly under wraps until after the election, if indeed Sir Keir does become prime minister.

As a result, given the size of Labour’s poll lead, Captain Caution is about right. And Sir Keir and his inner circle will be pleased with the way the manifesto launch went. For now, that is, until they see the morning newspaper headlines.

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At least Sir Keir didn’t suffer a repeat of being covered in glitter by a protester, as he was during his Labour party conference speech last year.

There was, however, a disruption as a heckler – a climate protester, predictably – stood up and shouted: “My generation is being let down by this party and this manifesto. Same old Tory policies!”

Sir Keir’s getting used to this. Remember the 2021 Labour conference, when he hit back at hecklers: “Shouting slogans or changing lives?”

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This time he shouted back: “We gave up being a party of protest five years ago. We want to be a party of power.”

From protest to power: Change. All very 1997.

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