Duncan Bowie bemoans another wasted opportunity from Labour’s leadership to promote new ideas in the face of Tory divisions
Ann Black, writing in the last issue of Chartist, was right to complain about the lack of vision and policy development in the Labour Party. Ann – a member of the NEC for 20 years and currently chair of the National Policy Forum – should know. The Labour leadership appears to have been asleep over the summer, letting the Tory leadership candidates come up with new policy ideas and leaving the candidates to attack each other.
Starmer has said little on economic policy, taxation or the cost-of-living crisis. We now know that Brexit is for good, yet we do not have any policy on future relationships with Europe or on trade. Labour seems to have accepted that the UK is now marginalised in terms of international policy, other than being supportive of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’s gung-ho position on the war in Ukraine and the expansion of NATO. Labour Party members not only cannot discuss Palestine but cannot discuss the negative consequences of NATO expansion. I do remember a certain Robin Cook suggesting that NATO as an anti-Soviet military alliance (as it then was) was, perhaps, not a good idea. Now, NATO seems not just to be anti-Russian but anti-China as well.
We need to ask where these positions are coming from. They are not from Labour Party members. Nor does the party seem to have a network of progressive experts to brief them on key policy areas. It certainly has no policy staff on the party payroll in the way that was the case 30 and 40 years ago, when I remember working with a series of full-time party housing policy officers. Now, when a shadow minister wants to develop policy ideas, they don’t know where to go. Most shadow ministers are given jobs based on their loyalty to the leadership, not on their expertise or interests. MPs speaking in the Commons or on Commons committees are often making it up as they go along. Some colleagues of mine were given 24 hours to draft amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, without any agreed policy basis for determining which clauses Labour supported and which we opposed, never mind what Labour would do instead – a question Government ministers and other Tory MPs understandably ask every time we criticise them. It is no good saying that we will have our policies ready for the next general election, assuming it is two years away. When Johnson was forced out, Starmer said Labour was ready for a general election. We were not then, and we are not now. Our response to the cost-of-living crisis, the hike in energy costs and the financial collapse of the public transport system has been to talk about a higher windfall tax than the Tories are going for (no specifics mentioned) and increased assistance to lower income households (again no specifics), although the crisis is not waiting for the next general election – it is with us now.
Starmer’s energy policy announcement was another example of a stopgap response – a very expensive but temporary fix which bails out the energy providers without targeting assistance to lower income households and small businesses. Like Government initiatives, it raises the obvious question as to what happens after six months – is the cap frozen again? There is now popular support for bringing the energy providers, the water companies and the rail companies back into some form of public ownership in the current crisis. What are we waiting for?
Starmer says that the Government could not afford to nationalise the energy sector as they would have to compensate shareholders, but this ignores the whole question as to what would be the basis of any buy-back. Shareholders should not be compensated at current share value – what about fixing compensation at the original purchase price, then netting off dividends received by shareholders, and then upping the net figure by RPI? This would be a fair approach: no shareholder would lose out on the money they had paid originally; they just would not have profited from the increased charges to consumers over the years. Clearly, under a nationalised system, this problem does not occur – Government bears the costs of investment, and the benefits of investment are shared by the public and the public purse. Isn’t that what socialism is about?
Why are we not arguing for public ownership of utilities, a more progressive tax system and refunding the welfare state, including local government? Starmer should not be sacking members of his shadow team for floating progressive ideas – that is what they should be doing. Each shadow minister should be building up their own networks of advisors, and there needs to be a systematic process for assessing new (and old) ideas – whether they would achieve specific objectives, how they relate to Labour values, how they would be paid for, and, most importantly, who would benefit. This is the time to be brave, but also to be more thoughtful, better informed and better prepared.