Starmer wants us to believe we can trust politicians again. That’s huge – but he has to mean it

Martin Kettle*- The Guardian

The Tories are in denial about the crisis in politics. Labour seems to get it. But voters will punish any government that doesn’t follow through on its word

On the other side of the Atlantic, in an act of shocking irresponsibility, the US supreme court has ruled that the president is above the law. On this side of the ocean, however, something diametrically opposite lies in store for Britain.

The US is a republic that has, in effect, just given itself an elected monarch who will be free to act as he or she pleases. The UK, by contrast, is a monarchy that is about to declare itself the closest thing to a republic of virtue since Cromwellian times.

Yes, we will still have a king, who happens to himself be largely above the law. But, if the Labour manifesto is to be believed, many other parts of British government are about to see the self-interested Cavalier culture of recent years swept aside by the more puritanical ways of the Roundheads.

Is this important? You bet it is. There are many reasons why the Conservatives may be ejected from power. But corruption and cronyism in office have been extremely close to the heart of it. Boris Johnson (who wanted to be a president and a king rather than a mere prime minister) never recovered from the revelation that he had been partying while the country was obeying Covid rules, and from trying to let off a Tory MP who had broken lobbying rules. That was the tipping point. The Tories’ polling went south and has never returned.

The decline in standards in politics has redefined the modern public’s view of politics for the far worse. The British Social Attitudes survey reported last month that public faith in MPs, politics and government has plummeted to historic lows. According to Ipsos, just 9% of voters trust politicians to tell the truth. And only 14% of the public think MPs are in politics to help others, while 69% think they are in it for themselves, according to YouGov.

Labour’s manifesto could hardly be clearer about why this matters and what is at stake. Try this: “There is now a crisis of confidence in our political system’s ability to deliver any [Labour’s own italics] change.” Or this: “Just as corrosive has been the inability of politicians to keep promises.” Or these: “This will require a reset in our public life,” and: “Labour will restore confidence in government.”

Not “will aim to”. Will. A remarkable claim. By contrast, the Conservative manifesto contains not one word about any of this. The Tories are in denial about the crisis in politics and government. Labour seems to get it.

Whether you approve of Keir Starmer’s election strategy or not, it is a matter of observable fact that he has centred it upon the regaining of trust. Starmer regards trust as the precondition for everything difficult that his government will have to do. It is, you could say, Starmer’s secret sixth mission in government.

This is why we now stand on the threshold of the most restrictive and significant attempt to tighten standards in politics and public life in a generation. Rhetorically, Labour’s language sets the bar of ambition high. Sleaze, scandal, false promises, gimmicks, divisive language, consultancies, the revolving door between government and business – all must go. And it is for government to make the first move.

Will all this actually happen? That is the key question. We may find part of the answer very soon indeed. If Starmer becomes prime minister this week, one of his first tasks will be to issue his own edition of the ministerial code. This document provides ministers with their ethical map and compass. It lays down the rules and the sanctions for breaking them. Every new prime minister issues such a document. Starmer’s may come within days.

Starmer’s code will be a big opportunity to start the reset. It should be hard-hitting. It could, for example, explicitly uphold the rule of law, including international law (Sunak’s code, written in 2022, does neither). It could forbid public appointments for partisan reasons (in contrast to the shameless behaviour of successive Tory governments). It could empower the independent enforcement of the code, rather than keep the process in the hands of the prime minister (as Johnson notoriously did in the Priti Patel case).

The code will set the tone. But it is only the start. Labour’s manifesto is more vague and less impressive about what comes next. It promises an independent ethics and integrity commission, but it is not clear whether this would replace all the existing standards regulators in government, parliament and public appointments, or act, as it ought to, as an umbrella body. Either way, it should be strongly independent and accountable to parliament.

The real challenge, though, is for ministers and MPs to take the issue of standards utterly seriously, to absorb the Nolan principles into their bloodstream, and to understand the penalty that they and the entire government will pay if anyone among their number does anything to encourage the media and the public to believe: ah, yes, they’re all the same after all. Anyone who knows British politics will know how difficult this will be.

But the performative stuff matters. So, Sir Keir, no more freebies to Taylor Swift concerts, no quango jobs for the Labour boys and girls, no knighthoods for David Beckham, and no peerages for donors, cronies and time-servers. If Starmer is about to rebuild a social democratic Britain, then that extraordinary achievement should be based on demonstrable modesty and frugality at the centre – not on Johnsonian entitlement or extravagance. Political trust, like economic growth, has to be earned. If it is true that support for Labour is very wide but also very shallow, then even now it will not take much to drain the pool.