Starting our new column, Bryn Jones reviews some of Starmer’s Ten Pledges
You might say it’s only natural for politicians to make ‘pledges’ that they can’t or won’t keep to. On the other hand, if one makes as many as ten commitments, it should surely be possible to stick to a few of these, at least in part. All of that applies to Keir Starmer, who has not yet had to square pledges with the pressures of governing for them. Yet, within twelve months of becoming Labour’s leader, many in the Party complain that most or all of his ten pledges to the Party’s membership have been explicitly broken. In this first of a series of Chartist audits of his promises, I’ll look at the most strategic economic pledges for ‘economic justice’, ‘common ownership’ and ‘workers’ rights and trade unions’.
Economic justice, the first pledge, included the airy promise that there would be “No stepping back from our core principles”. Shrewdly perhaps, he did not state what those principles were. Mainly concerned with taxation, this pledge promised to:
increase income tax for the top 5% of earners, reverse the Tories’ cuts in corporation tax and clamp down on tax avoidance, particularly of large corporations.
Yet Starmer has since vowed to make Labour a pro-business party, working ‘in partnership’ with business. Does the partnership involve business tax reform? His recent speech to the CBI made no mention of taxation policy except to promise the old Gordon Brown mantra of fiscally-balanced spending – “on behalf of the tax-paying public”. In her 2021 Party Conference speech, Rachel Reeves, the new shadow chancellor, was more specific. Resurrecting the hi-tech cliché of bringing a “laser focus to efficiency in our tax system”, she cited “hundreds of different tax breaks” that provide “loopholes for those who can afford the best advice”. Reeves identified “private equity bosses” paying “a lower rate of tax on their bonuses than workers do on their wages”. Labour, she said, would scrap dodges that didn’t “deliver for the taxpayer or for the economy”. Most tax reformers would not regard personal bonuses as corporate tax avoidance – especially when compared to, say, the £10 billion in UK corporate tax the Tax Justice Network estimates is lost to offshore havens. That pledge on corporate tax hikes has become conspicuous by its absence.
On public ownership, Starmer has been criticised for an apparent retreat from the pledge to bring energy utilities, rail and mail into ’public hands’. He responded with the tactical defence that the pledge only mentioned ‘common ownership’, not nationalisation. Fair enough. The nationalised industry model was not the most efficient or democratic of post-war Labour reforms. As shadow chancellor, John McDonnell considered the merits of other forms of common ownership like mutuals. However, Starmer has not defined his meaning of ‘common ownership’. It could mean democratically weak models like the John Lewis Partnership, or the corporate mutual, National Rail. Plenty of scope here for Policy Forum and Conference campaigns to press for more radical forms of commonality.
Workers’ rights and trade unions, the third economic pledge, promised to ‘tackle insecure work and low pay’. Before he abruptly resigned as shadow secretary of state for employment rights and protections, Andy McDonald announced – presumably with Starmer’s backing – that “all workers would receive rights and protections including Statutory Sick Pay, National Minimum Wage entitlement, holiday pay, paid parental leave, and protection against unfair dismissal”. Furthermore, Labour would tackle bogus self-employment and gig economy abuses by folding such contracts into a single status of ‘worker’: all with the same rights, ‘from day one’ of employment. This would definitely achieve the pledge on insecure work but low pay would still be at the mercy of Government decisions on the National Minimum Wage level. The employment pledge also promised to ‘work shoulder to shoulder’ with trade unions and to repeal the Trade Union Act. Yet in his speech to the TUC in September 2021, Starmer said only that Labour “would ensure a greater role for unions in boosting pay, with more workers covered by collectively agreed deals”. Significantly, he made no mention of repealing anti-union legislation to increase union influence. Some unions seem already to have decided that the legislative pledge has been broken. The Bakers Union has disaffiliated (though allegedly over the suspension of its president, Ian Hodson), and the giant Unite affiliate has scaled back its financial support to focus on extra-parliamentary campaigning.
Overall, a score card for his main economic pledges would probably rate Starmer fairly low for the pledges on public ownership, worker and union rights and even less for corporate taxation. The promise of a ‘partnership’ with employers looks much more as though Labour would not shift the dial of economic power very far away from corporate to worker power. Starmer’s TUC speech indicated that tactical electoral strategy would trump any pledges made to his Party. Because Labour has lost the last four elections, “if we don’t change then we won’t be in a position to deliver the new deal that workers in Britain, your members, deserve”. But many voters may conclude that if Starmer’s ‘change’ means breaking commitments to his own membership, he may well break pledges to them – which might not win an election but lose it.