6 Jul 2024

Keir Starmer is signalling he is ready for ‘serious business’, says Labour MP

Europe Editor and Presenter

If Labour’s top tier are getting down to work, what about the newly elected MPs?

We spoke to Miatta Fahnbulleh and Hamish Falconer, previously an economist and a diplomat.

Miatta Fahnbulleh: I think what was really clear, I knocked on thousands of doors, I’ve spoken to colleagues who were knocking on thousands of doors, that the country wanted change. And I think what we’ve delivered is a mandate for change. And we have to deliver, that’s the number one priority.

Matt Frei: And what do you think that means for you?

Miatta Fahnbulleh: For me, for Peckham specifically, there were three things that I heard loud and clear from my constituents. One is the cost of living and getting the economy back on track so that actually people have jobs that pay a decent wage. The second thing is housing. That’s a massive issue for us. The third thing is crime and making sure our community’s safe. So those are the three things that I will be looking to this Labour government to have an impact on.

Matt Frei: Keir Starmer is very good at managing expectations and he did that with the timing as well. He said, ‘Look, don’t expect anything too soon. We just got in. We’re just sitting down to get stuck in.’ But how much time do you think he realistically has before your voters and constituents start knocking on your door and saying, ‘What’s going on?’

Miatta Fahnbulleh: I don’t think we can underestimate the inheritance and how atrocious it is. So, the thing I always said with every conversation I had is that we are inheriting one of the toughest backdrops in order to deliver change. People are going to want to see tangible things over the course of the next five years. But I think people are realistic. They understand that we can’t turn it all around overnight. And the job now is to be really clear about what we will deliver, when we will deliver it, and to take people on the journey. And that is about trust. And the thing that I’m going to try and do is spend a lot of time with my constituents so that they trust me when I say, ‘We can’t do it like this, but we will do it. And here are the steps that we’re taking towards that.’

Matt Frei: I want to talk about some of the specifics in a minute, but let’s bring in Hamish. As I said, you’ve probably got more experience on the foreign stage as a former diplomat than Prime Minister Keir Starmer has. He’s mostly been in this country. What advice would you give him as he goes to meet Nato leaders in Washington next week?

Hamish Falconer: I think that’s probably not necessarily true, Matt, in that as the Director of Public Prosecutions, I know that Keir did a lot of work working with his equivalents, and I think he has been clear all the way through the campaign that he does see working internationally as a key part of dealing with problems. I know particularly in relation to the small boats, for example, that this is an international problem. So I suspect that he will know more of those people at the Nato summit than you would think. And I wouldn’t dream of giving him tips about how to deal with his counterparts, but I think you’ll find it pretty focused on those kinds of relationships.

Matt Frei: They might come in quite useful, some of those tips, if you were prepared to give them. But what do you think he needs to do in order to re-establish Britain’s role, Britain’s presence, on the global stage?

Hamish Falconer: I think that one of the things that is going to be absolutely clear for us is setting out what it is that the UK is focused on, and then being reliable in delivering that. I think one of the things that has really hurt the UK’s reputation internationally has been the sort of chop change of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab. There was no clear orientation in foreign policy for quite a long time, and I think we’re going to see in Keir and in the excellent new Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, a much clearer orientation. First off, towards our neighbours in Europe, clear continuity on Ukraine and a much greater ability, as David says, to reconnect Britain in a wider sphere as well, which I just don’t think the Conservatives ever prioritised.

Matt Frei: And do you think ditching the Rwanda scheme and not picking a fight with the European Court of Human Rights, is that a good thing? Does that help to establish where Britain actually stands in terms of values?

Hamish Falconer: I think it’s hugely important on values. I think it’s hugely important practically. Just north of my constituency, we have RAF Scampton, which was proposed by the previous government as a holding pen for asylum seekers, and just like Rwanda, another gimmick that clearly won’t work. What I think Keir was signalling today, really clearly, is that we are going to get down to serious business. And Rwanda was not serious business. It’s absolutely obvious, if you want to deal with small boats, you are going to have to deal with the Europeans in a detailed and sustained way. And a gimmick like Rwanda was no way to do that. So yeah, I do think it is going to make a big difference to our relations with Europe.

Matt Frei: Miatta, I know that he’s ruled out joining the single market or the customs union or indeed the EU, but we do know that friction-full trade with our closest trading partners is a massive problem for businesses in this country. What do you think he should do to try and align ourselves more closely with Europe without breaking any campaign promises?

Miatta Fahnbulleh: I think that our number one priority is growth. We’ve said that that is a core mission, and in the end, we need to make sure that we have a relationship with our closest trading partner that facilitates growth. And so I think there are lots of things that we can agree and negotiate which still sits within the constraints of the things that we’ve said that we would do in the campaign.

Matt Frei: How do you get growth without that closer relationship with the EU? And also, how do you pay for all these public services without raising taxes?

Miatta Fahnbulleh: I think the way that we get growth is first we do need to normalise the relationship. I think the last government started to do that, but there is a lot more that we need to do. So the businesses on the front line of this don’t feel that friction. But it comes to other things, it comes to the investment that we’re going to make, it comes to our workforce plan, our skills planning. It comes to a big strategic bet. Now we’ve got that green prosperity plan that says we know that the green economy is going to be a massive driver of growth. We are backing that with our national wealth fund. We’ve got a proper plan to do that. And that’s the thing that’s going to deliver in the long term.

Matt Frei: Finally Miatta, are you nervous checking into parliament? Excited, nervous? Both?

Miatta Fahnbulleh: Excited. But I think a real sense of responsibility. So much is broken, our job is now to fix it and I think we wear that with huge grace, responsibility and clarity about what needs to be done.

Matt Frei: Hamish, as a former hostage negotiator, are you terrified about joining parliament?

Hamish Falconer: Yes. I think it’s going to be a steep learning curve for all of us who are new to it. But as Miatta says, I think we’ve got an excellent new cohort of Labour MPs who are hungry to try and deliver for their areas. And we’ll all be fighting to do that, I get down to London tomorrow and I’m sure we’ll all be pushing for that from when we get there.