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13 June 2024

Labour’s manifesto is quietly radical

The UK is being offered a change of ideology as well as a change of government.

By George Eaton

Some party manifestos are presented as literary or philosophical works. Labour’s 2024 general election manifesto, launched at the Co-Op HQ in Manchester, does not fall into these categories. Its front cover, emblazoned with a black-and-white photo of a sober Keir Starmer, features a single word: “Change”. As titles go, it won’t win prizes for originality. 

But do not confuse this with an absence of substance. The “slim document” that some in Labour spoke of has proved to be 23,000 words long (the Starmer project’s problem has never been a lack of policy). 

Those looking for surprises will be disappointed – the party has learned from Theresa May’s ill-fated social care plan (the “dementia tax”), sprung on an unsuspecting electorate in 2017. John McDonnell’s 2019 promise of free broadband – which bemused rather than attracted voters – is cited as another cautionary tale. 

Labour has eschewed this scattergun approach in favour of a manifesto structured around the party’s long-standing “five missions” for government on the economy, decarbonisation, the NHS, crime and education. This mission-driven approach – an idea Starmer’s senior adviser Peter Hyman adapted from the UCL economist Mariana Mazzucato – is designed to address the UK’s chronic short-termism and serve as an anchor for all policy decisions.

So is the Starmer project a purely technocratic one? Is the aim simply to manage the economy more efficiently than the Conservatives? The answer from the manifesto is a resounding no. 

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In numerous areas it represents a departure not only from the last 14 years of Conservative government but from the last Labour administration. The New Deal for Working People – alleged by some to have been “gutted” – remains, along with a pledge to introduce legislation within 100 days. Exploitative zero-hour contracts will be banned, fire and rehire will be ended and workers will be guaranteed basic rights, such as sick pay, parental leave and protection against unfair dismissal, from the first day of employment. Collective bargaining will be introduced for social care workers to drive up wages and standards in this long neglected sector.

Though Starmer and Rachel Reeves have waged a “smoked salmon offensive” in the City of London, the intention is to forge a new social democratic settlement. “Labour will turn the page to create a partnership between business and trade unions,” the manifesto declares in language that Harold Wilson would recognise. Business gets stability, planning reform and greater investment; the unions get the biggest programme of workers’ rights for decades. 

Public ownership – words that never appeared in a New Labour manifesto – is not only included but celebrated. The party commits to renationalising the railways “as contracts with existing operators expire or are broken through a failure to deliver” and to ending the ban on municipal bus ownership.

Labour also vows to establish Great British Energy – “it will be owned by the British people and deliver power back to the British people” – and to capitalise it with £8.3bn of public investment. In strikingly unambiguous language, the party’s commitment to ban new North Sea oil and gas licences has also survived: “They [the licences] will not take a penny off bills, cannot make us energy secure, and will only accelerate the worsening climate crisis”. By 2030, the party aims to double onshore wind, triple solar power and quadruple offshore wind.

Public bodies will be given a legal duty to reduce inequality as Labour enacts the socio-economic duty of the 2010 Equality Act. It sounds wonkish but this would have represented a significant legal obstacle to austerity (one reason the Conservatives never enacted it).

Other notable pledges include the creation of a National Care Service, a new UK-EU security pact, the removal of the remaining hereditary peers from the House of Lords and votes at 16. The real question is whether Labour – and Whitehall – have the capacity to deliver all of the above in a single term.

Why, then, is Starmer’s party regularly accused of being indistinguishable from the Conservatives? In part, this reflects the party’s journey since 2019. After the (defeated) radicalism of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto, Starmer’s document was always destined to appear moderate by comparison. The factional feuds of recent years have also served to obscure where there is continuity as well as change. 

And Labour’s manifesto is a work of fiscal caution. Though promises to tax non-doms, energy giants, private schools and private equity executives endure, they collectively amount to just £8.6bn of tax rises. The original pledge to spend £28bn a year on green investment has been reduced to just £4.7bn a year. As a share of GDP, Labour’s tax and spending commitments are far outweighed by both the Tories’ and the Lib Dems’.

Yet Starmer and Reeves insist repeatedly that “there will be no return to austerity”. To keep this promise, Labour will almost certainly need to raise taxes by more than stated. Focus not only on what is in the manifesto but what isn’t: higher capital gains tax and new council tax bands are not ruled out (unlike higher income tax, National Insurance, VAT and corporation tax). For now, silence reigns. But in common with most new chancellors, Reeves may well enter the Treasury and conveniently discover that “the books are worse than thought”. 

There is a final reason for the left’s dismissal of the Starmer project: both he and Reeves have consistently presented radical policies in moderate language. There has been no talk of “predators” and “fat cats” or of “conflict” and “struggle”. Mindful that Labour usually loses elections, Starmer and Reeves are offering a quiet radicalism – one that won’t scare Middle England.

The same was true of Joe Biden who campaigned as a moderate but has proved perhaps the most radical US president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Will Starmer emulate this pivot? The answer, for now, is unknown. But the UK is not only being offered a change of government – it is being offered a change of ideology too.

[See also: Keir Starmer, toolmakers and the death of the working-class hero]

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