Keir Starmer - credit: Ronny Przysucha / Wikimedia CC

The climb down on a commitment to fund the Green New Deal with £28b follows the ditching of most of Keir Starmer’s  early election pledges leading Hugh Gault ask the big question

Nobody is more enthusiastic than me about the next UK government being formed or led by Labour. But this needs to be a Labour government that is in power for a purpose, one that it adheres to no matter what the buffeting from the opposition and the Tory press, and is not distracted by the siren calls of Labour grandees living in the past. After all it was on Blair’s watch that the GP and dentist contracts were revised. That went well didn’t it? Indeed the Blair legacy, on house-building and final salary scheme pensions, for example, is almost as responsible for the current dispersion of hope among young people as the toxic overhang of Thatcherism.

If the object is simply power for its own sake, and to avoid offending any segment of the electorate, then lowest common denominator politics makes sense. But we’ve already got that with the current Conservative government. What does Labour offer in addition? Where is the appeal or the experience that puts them in pole position?

Labour has been said for some time to be twenty points ahead in the polls? Who else in recent times has managed to throw away such a large lead when the election campaign exposed their limitations? Theresa May in 2017 springs to mind, and that may turn out not to be the only similarity to Keir Starmer.

The media love above all to back a winner. In 2019 they played a large part in convincing the country to back Boris Johnson. That should be enough of a cautionary tale in itself not to repeat the blind adherence to the press view in 2024 (or 2025). UKIP also played its part by not standing in Conservative-held seats, only Labour ones.

Jeremy Corbyn was said to be unelectable, despite the storming performance the party he led put in at the 2017 election. It is certainly correct that the Labour party manifesto in 2019 did not help, but there were other internal party factors at play as well. It can now be argued that his support for the Palestinian cause was prescient and ahead of its time (rather like King Charles championing environmental causes from the 1970s on). The rest of the world has caught up, though the UK and US governments are still in the process of getting there and the current Labour leadership, which one might expect to focus on human rights, has said almost nothing. Like the Conservative government it concentrated in the first weeks on backing Israel to win the war. Nobody questions any country’s right to defend itself when attacked, but that justification has long since disappeared in the case of Gaza.

What is perhaps most worrying is that the current shadow Cabinet has almost no experience of running anything. For example, Starmer may have been DPP, but the notion that he managed the Crown Prosecution Service (except perhaps in the narrowest administrative sense) seems not to be the case. Certainly there was no strategic consideration of how public prosecutions sat alongside private ones (such as the Post Office prosecution of sub-postmasters) or even any consideration of the overall judicial system. Managing lawyers must in any case be like herding cats: better not attempted.

The three major issues for the electorate are the economy, the NHS and climate change. The culture wars that animate some journalists so forcefully come well down the public’s list of priorities. So what do we have from the current Labour leadership on these key issues?

On the economy: a commitment to adhere to the Conservative spending position, simply because this seemed to work well for Blair in 1997. The crucial difference though was that Ken Clarke was bequeathing a growing economy after the lamentable Lamont years. Today things are not the same, so Labour may find itself promoting austerity, both for vulnerable individuals and for public services in meltdown. We have already been told that the two-child cap on benefits will remain, non-doms will get a grace period, the main rate of corporation tax will not exceed 25% and the green growth commitment has been reduced to an aspiration. Much of this is conceived as wooing business and mollifying wavering voters who put their cross for the Conservatives in 2019 but might be persuaded to vote Labour this time. If they do, one hopes they know what they’re voting for.

On the NHS we are told that the dentist contract will be revised “within days of taking office” and that waiting lists will be reduced by evening and weekend appointments. Presumably dentists will have a new contract imposed and nurses and medics have no other life than work? They may like overtime, thereby increasing costs, but what is certain is that out-of-hours appointments cannot increase the capacity in the system. For that the number of staff will have to be increased – with immigration the fastest solution for the UK, if not for the countries they come from, since it takes so long to train nurses (now a graduate profession since the last Labour government). And then those already employed have to be retained much more effectively than at present. It is difficult to believe that can be achieved with increasing workloads, unless people are paid much more too. Which leads back to the question of where that money comes from: other budgets, higher taxes?

Ideally, people will be diverted by prevention and ultimately better health, but that is a generational rather than an immediate recipe. Also, of course, prevention was the mantra of the 1997 government without any discernible effects today. Does anybody remember the Wanless report, let alone the Olympic legacy the country was promised.

On climate change Labour may not be planning to grant more licences to drill for North Sea oil, or for Cumbrian coal mines, but they have reduced their flagship green policy in recent weeks to make it a parody of the 2022 commitment of £28bn a year. We have been promised ten new towns, or were last year at any rate, but even if they happen won’t materialise for the lifetime of several governments. One can only hope that they are not built on flood plains and that that there are no more than three round Cambridge. After all the new town of Northstowe was being planned thirty years ago and the few residents who live there today are still waiting for the full range of public and community services they require.

On all the above, but especially the last, it is young people who have every right to be angry for it is their future that is being thrown away in pursuit of short-term (and almost certainly misguided and misplaced) expediency. Where is the vision? Where is the courage?

A precedent to ponder: at the final 1981 GLC election, Labour was led by Andrew McIntosh. The day after winning he was voted out by the Labour group and replaced by Ken Livingstone. In 1986 Thatcher disbanded the GLC. Take from this what you will.

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