Voices: Keir Starmer’s chaotic U-turns give the impression he doesn’t believe in anything

Keir Starmer is “working forwards not backwards”, a Blair-era cabinet minister told me after one of the Labour leader’s recent U-turns. This was a cryptic way of saying that Starmer seems to be responding to events, rather than deciding where he needs to be by the time of the election and working backwards from there.

Instead of planning a path to the right position, Starmer responds to issues as they come up at random. This former cabinet minister was pleased with the general direction of Starmer’s retreat from the Corbynite programme on which he was elected, and thought that he was “learning on the job and getting better”.

But the policy changes seem reactive and badly explained, as if Starmer hadn’t intended to make them, but has been persuaded that he should.

A Blair-era special adviser made a similar point: “I don’t know where people get the idea from that Keir Starmer is boring. It’s a white-knuckle ride: ‘Rishi Sunak’s soft on paedophiles! Votes for five million foreigners! I’ll be more radical than Tony Blair (details to follow).’” The apparent “rushes of blood to the head”, they said, give the impression that policy-making has been subcontracted to whichever frontbencher wants to make a Twitter graphic, or whichever press officer answers the phone to a journalist asking about any of the policies on which Starmer stood for leader.

In the past week alone, Starmer has retreated from votes for EU citizens while trying to make it seem as if he hasn’t, with him and his office saying different things. He suggested that voting rights would only be for people who had lived in the UK for 30 years, while party officials said they would only be for citizens of countries that have a reciprocal deal – who are already allowed to vote in general elections.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband’s policy of votes at 16 is “under review”, as well it might be, because Starmer favours people making decisions on smoking, marriage and gender identity when they are older. Then Starmer seemed to say he would renegotiate Brexit, which set the Conservative press off in search of smelling salts.

All this distracted from what Starmer wanted the message to be this week; namely that a Labour government would build more houses. Starmer certainly gained some attention for promising to build on the green belt. Even that was not backed up with a plan, or any detail about how it would be implemented, beyond restoring the national house-building targets dropped by the government.

Previously in this series of U-turns, Starmer has abandoned public ownership of the utilities and free tuition for students, while admitting that he has always been against proportional representation.

Each of those has emerged from questions in interviews; none has been announced on Labour’s own terms as part of a plan for government, backed up by research and outside experts.

In one interview, Starmer explained that he had asked people in his office to look at the costs of nationalisation. He made it sound as if the intern from Bowling Green University, Ohio, had been asked to do a Google search.

And we are still waiting for the big one: the U-turn on the £28bn-a-year Green Prosperity Plan. It feels as if that supertanker is turning round, but in the dark. The phrase was not used in the briefing document for Labour’s five “missions”, launched in February, which included: “Make Britain a clean energy superpower.”

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, mentioned the Green Prosperity Plan on a visit to Glasgow in March, but I cannot find the last time she mentioned the £28bn figure. Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, mentioned it in a speech in March, praising Reeves for having drawn it up, apparently trying to tie her to it.

But all Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow business secretary, said in an interview last weekend was that “there will be increased investment spending under a Labour government”. Which is difficult, because any departure from the plans of the Tory government will have to be spelled out before the election, and voters told where the money is going to come from.

On this policy above all, Labour needs to work backwards rather than forwards. Reeves and Starmer need to decide now what they want the policy to be by the time of the election. I assume, given that everything else is heading in a Blairite direction – rightly, because that is where the voters are – that the promise will be to stick to Tory spending plans, except for programmes paid for by specific tax rises, such as VAT on school fees and abolition of non-dom status.

But that promise will have to include borrowing for investment, because I don’t think Labour can go into an election promising to borrow more than the Tories. So the Green Prosperity Plan has to go – or, as Reeves and Starmer will no doubt put it, it will have to be restructured to meet the needs of a clean energy superpower.

Let us see if Starmer can manage this U-turn better than most of the others. The Blairites are mostly surprised and delighted that Starmer has turned out to be so ruthless in pursuit of swing voters. But by “working forwards not backwards”, he risks giving the impression that he doesn’t believe in anything.