Is Keir Starmer conceding too much ground in advance of an election he looks like winning? Or does he look like winning because he concedes so much ground? The answer to these two thorny questions will determine Labour’s approach towards the next election and, more importantly, how it governs if victory is secured. Words uttered now cannot be unsaid once an election is safely won. They will determine the limits of power that can be exercised by what would be the first Labour government since 2010.
We know that Starmer and Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, believe that caution is an essential part of their pitch. At present the Conservatives are in meltdown yet again. They have become world experts in fighting increasingly bizarre civil wars. Meanwhile, the SNP struggles to deal with the recent arrest of Nicola Sturgeon and at the same time cannot cope with the absence of her galvanising leadership. During the noisy implosion of once-mighty opponents, Labour continues to make defensive swerves. Reeves delayed the party’s plan to invest £28bn a year in green industries, Labour has ruled out introducing universal childcare and the party will not pledge to abolish university tuition fees. A Fabian Society proposal for a National Care Service was watered down in fraught discussions with the Labour leadership. The party keeps its distance from the tentative final version.
Such defensive moves are made for understandable reasons. In advance of an election, much of the media presents any plans from Labour to invest as a threat rather than as a cause for hope. The pre-election “tax and spend” debate in the UK revolves around a deranged fantasy about future “black holes”, “tax bombshells” and the rest. The BBC engages with the fantasy as much as the most rabid Conservative newspaper. When Reeves appears on a BBC outlet the interviewer becomes an imperious accountant: “But on the basis of spending projections there will be a black hole at 3pm on February 2025 in East Grinstead unless you put up taxes or cut spending… what will you do?” Expect similar absurdities for months to come.
As shadow chancellor in the mid-1990s Gordon Brown chose to shut down the debate by pledging to stick with Conservative spending plans for two years. One piece of advice from Brown to Reeves soon after she became shadow chancellor in 2021 was that any spending commitment must be fully funded, or appear to be so. Reeves follows the advice and does so with more vivacious and relaxed authority than Brown managed to convey.
But note the contrast with the Conservatives. Election-winning Tory leaderships never concede ground in opposition. David Cameron and George Osborne were the only leaders of a mainstream party in the industrialised world calling for real-terms spending cuts after the 2008 financial crisis. The duo continued to sing the same tune until the 2010 general election. They did so even when the fiscal stimulus implemented by governments from the right to the left worked. There was no appearance from Osborne on the Today programme stating that “in the light of changed circumstances we will not propose to cut quite as much as we had planned to do and we will not do so as speedily as we had intended”.
The same applied to Margaret Thatcher and her chancellor Geoffrey Howe as they strode towards their 1979 victory, arguing that they would free the people by getting the state off their backs. In opposition their ideological resilience helped to project a sense of purpose. They appeared to have a “play” for the future.
The bar is set much higher for Labour to prove its fiscal prudence, but as more confident Tory leaderships have shown, it is not always electorally advantageous to waver as an election draws near. Even opponents as pathetically vulnerable as the ones Labour currently faces will seize on confused timidity. Now that Labour has conceded that borrowing to invest can be risky, watch the Tories and the media argue that even the ambition to borrow more is dangerously reckless. Opposition parties need teachers putting a case relentlessly for several years. This has not happened with Labour’s plans to borrow in order to invest fruitfully and now ground is conceded before the case is properly made.
Nonetheless, given the wretched state of those opponents, the path to power for Labour looks clearer now. The main risk of an excess of caution is where that leaves Starmer and his team if they win. Unlike Tony Blair and Brown, they will inherit an economy with anaemic growth or no growth at all and one that no longer benefits from being part of the European single market. Even with a growing economy Brown had to find additional resources expensively: the profligate private finance initiative, the sale of half of the UK’s gold reserves, the calamitous public-private partnership for the London Underground. Enfeebled public services were slow to improve as Labour stuck to spending plans that the outgoing Tory chancellor, Ken Clarke, revealed subsequently he had had no intention of adhering to.
Fast forward to now. Labour argues that its Green Prosperity Plan is intended to generate economic growth. Will growth be delayed if the plan is implemented more gradually? A key argument advanced for universal childcare is that an ambitious scheme would enable more parents to work, leading to higher productivity and rising tax revenues. What comes first, the growth to pay for childcare or childcare to drive the growth?
As Starmer often notes, the NHS is “broken”. Other public services are similarly overwhelmed. There has been no levelling up. Such is the potency of the despairing declaration that “nothing works”, that there will be limited patience from voters if nothing works much better after the first term of a Labour government.
Yet for all his changes and U-turns, Starmer shows a consistently radical verve, albeit one checked by focus groups. Listen to him on workers’ rights, his doubts as to whether he would have gone to university if the tuition fees system was in place, his hunger to revive the fractured NHS and the UK’s decaying infrastructure, the recognition of Britain’s productivity crisis, the value of industrial strategy, the iniquity of private schools claiming charitable status.
If he becomes prime minister, will Starmer regret some of the constraints placed on him by his current pledges? Will some of those constraints prove an impediment as voters cry out for “change”? The answers are nerve-shreddingly complex but they do not always point towards pre-election timidity. Winning an election is an art form and not a science. Part of the artistry is recognising when caution becomes risky.
Steve Richards’ next book Turning Points: Crisis and Change from 1945 to Liz Truss is published in September.