Over the past week, the Labour Party has announced a £15bn package of measures to help school children recover from the pandemic disruption; called for the government to back Joe Biden’s plan to set a global minimum rate of corporation tax and to spend the forecast UK revenue of £14.7bn on the NHS; and demanded a reverse in the cuts to British foreign aid and that a programme of debt relief be established for lower-income countries.
At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, opposition parties struggle to get the spotlight and as a result their policy announcements need to do a lot of heavy lifting. They need to communicate not only the basic position on the policy in question (ie would Labour spend the £15bn that the government’s school recovery tsar and a host of think tanks believe is necessary to make up for the disruption to learning over the past 18 months, yes or no?) but also to tell us a whole bunch of other stuff about that party and its values.
One way a party can do this is by using its spending announcements both to tell us what it is for (by telling us what it would spend the money on) but also what it is against (by telling us where it would get the money from).
Let’s take as an example what is probably the most consequential opposition policy announcement of the past 20 years: George Osborne’s pledge while shadow chancellor to increase the inheritance tax threshold from £300,000 to £1m, and to fund it by taxing “non-doms” (that is, British citizens resident elsewhere) and by tackling tax avoidance. Although the pledge was never fulfilled – the inheritance tax threshold kicks in at £325,000 to £500,000 depending on your exact circumstances – in part because the amount of money raised by taxing non-domiciles was insufficient to replace the lost revenue, it achieved its main function, which was to kill the prospect of an early election in 2007 stone dead.
This applies even if your preferred approach is to adopt modern monetary theory or to treat the debts accrued during lockdown as we treated the debts accrued during the Second World War: explaining why you don’t need to fund your spending commitments is also a way of explaining your values. (And as Jo Michell explains well here, even if you do not believe you need to raise taxes to fund spending, you may want to raise them for other reasons.)
And oppositions need to repeat, repeat and repeat themselves, because the only way to get your policies noticed outside government is to keep saying them until you are sick of hearing yourself. (One of David Cameron’s team had a good rule of thumb, which is that a policy announcement in opposition has only achieved its required level of saturation once it becomes suitable material for a joke on Mock the Week and every political journalist is tired of it.)
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of the policies Labour announced this week from an electoral perspective: I don’t think going into the next election pledging to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development is an election-losing proposition, and I think there’s a very good chance that promising to spend billions on public services will be a central component of an election-winning one in 2024. (We shouldn’t forget that while the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto had austerity very much baked into the cake, it also included a number of pledges to increase public spending by large amounts.)
But, to put it crudely, if you announce you are going to spend £15bn – essentially a 10 per cent increase in what we spend on education today! – then you really ought to be seeking to draw a lot of attention to that. You absolutely should not be competing with yourself. You should be using your only truly high-profile front-line politicians – that is to say, the current leader Keir Starmer and Ed Miliband – to boost your message on education, not have them announcing different policies.
If Labour does want to talk about raising corporation tax in line with Biden’s plan, it should explicitly link that with its plans for education, rather than the more nebulous call to fund “the NHS” or “public services” more generally, simply in order to better draw attention to the fact that Labour has a commitment to meet the demand of the government’s own education tsar and the Conservatives do not.
Now, I don’t think any of that really matters this week: the central reason why Labour has struggled to make headway with these announcements is that this has been very a busy news week for a variety of reasons outside its control. As I’ve written before, the main reason for Labour’s current poll position is the performance of the government and, most of all, the unlocking. But how a party does when the spotlight is not on it is a good guide to how it will operate when it does have the floor. On this evidence, Labour will be struggling even when events turn towards it.