Undeliverable, questionable and unconvincing – Duncan Bowie looks at Starmer’s policy prospectus and finds it seriously wanting
The Labour Party policy team is currently working on drafting Labour’s manifesto for next year’s general election. The National Policy Forum is undertaking a consultation exercise on policy proposals, with the submission deadline just closed. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer has published five pledges and is in the middle of a programme of pledge launches, having given speeches on economic growth and crime. Whether there is any relationship between these three initiatives remains somewhat unclear. In Parliament, Labour spokespersons are trying to deal with a number of substantial pieces of Government legislation, including the long-delayed Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and the even more contentious, so-called Illegal Migration Bill, both of which are now in the Lords. While Labour is opposing elements of both bills, the leadership is struggling to answer the question of what Labour would do instead.
Labour is still polling ahead of the Conservatives, but its lead is weakening and the possibility of a majority administration may be slipping away. Labour has some real difficulties in trying to both demonstrate fiscal responsibility (critical after the Truss/Kwarteng debacle) and, at the same time, that its offer is substantially different from that of the current Sunak/Hunt administration, which is widely seen as performing more competently than its predecessor (not that that is difficult).
Yet the best slogan Labour can come up with is ‘Britain Deserves Better’, which is pretty unspecific. Starmer has nevertheless made a number of commitments which are both questionable as priority objectives yet also undeliverable, most notably the commitment (or perhaps aspiration) to make the UK the highest growth economy in the G7 and the promise to ‘make Brexit work’. Given the stagnation of the British economy (or stagflation, given the recent inflationary pressures) and the evidence that Brexit has had a significant negative impact, this seems a bizarre approach, especially given Labour’s economic strategy is not very convincing.
Rachel Reeves is seeking to demonstrate that Labour is now the friend of business, so makes a commitment not to raise capital gains tax. Labour is also seeking to present itself as the party of homeowners with a commitment to raise home ownership to 70% (it is currently 63% in England). This comes without any idea of how it is to be delivered and fails to recognise that subsidising housing demand just increases house prices and reduces affordability in the longer term, as well as diverting resources from the programme of building homes for social rent.
Labour is also reviving another slogan from the Blair era – “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” – and competing with the Tories as to which party can deliver a new form of antisocial behaviour order in the local election campaign, while the Tories focus on potholes, graffiti and litter.
Labour’s main gambit is to state that Labour would have frozen council tax had they been in power, a policy which, if adopted by the Conservatives, would have led to massive further cuts being implemented by all councils, including Labour councils. While such a proposition may be meaningless now, as Labour is not in power and council tax notices have gone out anyway, this is a hostage to fortune as there will be a reasonable expectation that if Labour wins the next general election, Labour will impose a council tax freeze on councils, who will then be forced to make cuts.
So much for Labour’s commitment to devolve more powers to local authorities and for central government to stop imposing inappropriate policies on them. What Labour should have done is set out proposals to reform council tax and local government finance more broadly. However, so far, Labour has not decided which way to jump, so instead goes with what is opportunistic, populist and to a certain extent dishonest.
In setting out his position for the local elections, Starmer is of course reaching for the middle ground, which is increasingly difficult given the extent to which the Sunak/Hunt/Gove leadership of the current Government is competing for the same ground. Gove, for example, has put forward a number of policies which were previously Labour territory – regulation of social housing quality and management, reform of the private rented sector, powers for councils to compulsorily acquire land for housing, and regulation of short-term lettings (Airbnb) – where Government proposals are clearer than anything so far proposed by Labour.
Labour is terribly nervous about putting anything in its manifesto which might lose votes, while failing to recognise that some policy proposals might actually win more votes than they lose. Taxation is a key issue. Every time Labour is challenged as to what they would do with tax and funding its spending priorities, Reeves’ response is to say, a) that Labour will be fiscally responsible, and b) that it cannot say anything more until it knows what economic legacy the Tories will leave, though we already know that this will not be good (and far worse than the inheritance in 1945, 1964 and 1997). Without further revenue income, public services will continue to run down under a Labour government – especially if Labour will continue, as it has promised, to contribute billions to the Ukrainian war effort.
It is therefore not surprising that the Labour policy team are working on a longer-term strategy – on what Labour could do in the first term and what they could do in a second term if Labour did not mess up in its first five years. The team is also working on what policy and delivery mechanisms they could change without the need for parliamentary legislation, which is not only slow, but if Labour leads a minority administration, would require negotiations with other parties.
Labour, in trying not to upset anyone, has been keen to be seen to avoid taking sides – for example, in its attitude to recent public sector strikes. Even more oddly on issues where there is majority public support – for example, on renationalisation of the railways, water companies and energy providers – it remains over-cautious.
The leadership seems reluctant to point out that public services are best run by publicly accountable bodies, who are not profit-seeking. Instead, Labour would just seek to extract a bit more tax from these parasitical profiteers rather than tackle the fundamental issue. So, Labour can be both bold and pragmatic and, by choosing the right issues and returning to some basic principles and values, Labour could actually be returned as a majority government, in which case it might actually be able to do at least some of the things we want.