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1 July 2024

Labour’s missions are no substitute for ideology

Beyond its focus on delivery, the party’s rhetoric is hollow.

By Jonathan White

One of the most insistent refrains in Keir Starmer’s campaigning rhetoric has been that he represents a constructive break with a disordered past. “Stop the chaos, turn the page, and start to rebuild,” he tells us at every opportunity. Labour’s “Change” manifesto waxed lyrical about hope and long-term ambition. “For too long, Britain has been held back by governments that, because they lack a relentless focus on long-term ends, are buffeted about by events.” Labour’s answer? To face the future with five key missions – “measurable, long-term objectives that provide a driving sense of purpose for the country”.

There are good reasons for today’s politicians to emphasise the long term. Far-sighted policy-making has a natural appeal in an age experienced as one of crisis. Many today feel besieged by some kind of emergency. People disagree on the substance – whether it is about climate change or economic malaise, geopolitics or migration – but the sense of disturbance and threat is widely shared. And when so much of politics looks like emergency management, focused on fighting fires, it is understandable to long for a more long-term politics, one that might ward off the crises before they occur.

But are Labour’s missions the answer? Credibility seems to be the name of the game, and this encourages the formulation of concrete goals. Such precise targets as “recruit 6,500 new teachers” are ones that can be fully costed, and against which progress is easily tracked. The same goes for incentivising doctors and nurses to work out of hours, or providing free breakfast clubs in schools.

These are tangible goals, “measurable” indeed – but not in themselves ambitious. Everything depends on how they are pursued: not just who pays but whose interests are protected, whose power is served. A programme of real ambition provokes a backlash from the status quo: it needs a strategy for taking on power. On these questions of principle and organisation, Labour has been vague and non-committal. This is the rhetoric of long-termism without the project to sustain it.

The party’s leadership is actively setting itself against the extravagance it sees in the 2019 campaign and the broader vision it stood for. We are promised “no magic wand”, no “rabbits out of a hat”. “Stability” is a keyword. The assumption is that the electorate is sceptical – that whatever its unease about the present, it wants nothing too grand from the future. Not only is a mission meant to be credible but also self-contained. An audience can be persuaded of some of the five while giving the others a miss. “Economic growth”, yes, “clean energy”, perhaps. The bullet-point style of mission-based politics is the very opposite of a vision – it is designed to be broken into parts.

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Talk of a mission and you evoke the man on it. Keir Starmer is now central to the party’s image of business-like rectitude. Labour’s manifesto is packed with more than 30 photos of him – the personalisation of politics is clear. But there is a tension here with the desire to present a credible long-term plan. Individuals rarely survive long in politics – especially those whose ratings are not strong. Presenting a party through the guise of a personality is to emphasise its most transient feature. Only a wider movement can hope to endure.

And while a mission can suggest constancy of purpose, its concreteness can be a disadvantage. In a time of volatility, general principles are likely to be more durable than precisely quantified targets. Historically, the foundation for a long-term cause has been a well-worked set of principles: socialism, progressivism, statism or utilitarianism. But none of these traditions of the party’s past have a visible place in today’s campaigning materials. Where “isms” feature at all, it is in tightening the rules on “counter-extremism”.

“Let Us Face the Future” was the name of Labour’s most famous campaign document – the manifesto of 1945. It was built on principles and abstract concepts, describing goals spread out into an indefinite future. “The Labour Party is a Socialist Party”, “The Labour Party stands for freedom”, “Socialism cannot come overnight, as the product of a weekend revolution”. Such language can sound like waffle, but it does something important. To evoke an ism is to describe an indivisible cause, irreducible to particular tasks and individuals. That cause led to the creation of the NHS. It led to a new system of national insurance based on the universal principle, expanding rights on pensions, unemployment and sickness, and to the nationalisation of key industries, transport, and the Bank of England. It was the making of the welfare state.

To be sure, critics would argue such measures should have been just the beginning. Socialism remained far away. Policy remained rather top-down, and on matters like decolonisation it was piecemeal. But whatever the project’s limitations, its legacy was undoubtedly long-term: it shaped Britain for the next three decades. Labour today seeks to respond to an age of crisis without the intellectual programme to support it. Rather than harness the party’s traditions, it defines itself against them. Rather than draw on the commitment of its activists – those who join up for the long-term goals – it brings in the lobbyists and strategists whose ties are those of convenience. The party fails to acknowledge the scale of action required – indeed its approach could make matters worse.

For the hollowing of parties is what fosters that same sense of crisis Labour wants to overcome. Problems only become emergencies when you feel powerless to address them. Anxieties of climate, economy and culture tend to be rooted in the fear that politicians have no compass, that they are unable or unwilling to act on the threats. When parties stop defining themselves by an “ism”, they cease to look like the expressions of an enduring cause, one that people might embrace and try to shape. Long-term ambitions become detached from the means to achieve them. A party that wants to build confidence in the further future needs to offer a lot more than “change”. It needs to set out the ideas it stands for, and empower those in the rank and file who believe in them. It is only by pegging concrete goals to wider commitments that parties can give their officials and the wider public the tools to project beyond the events of the moment. Weaken parties as communities of principle, and all politics descends towards emergency politics.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s aggressive strategy is his best hope]

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