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14 September 2021

Why hasn’t Keir Starmer told us where Labour stands on social care?

After announcing many policies to little or no benefit in his first year in office, the Labour leader is now trying a different approach.

By Stephen Bush

Why didn’t the Labour Party put forward an alternative to the Conservatives’ social care proposals last week? There are two reasons. 

The first is that Keir Starmer’s team have learnt the lessons of 2020, when it unveiled a dizzyingly large number of policy announcements (excluding coronavirus-related ones, such as increasing statutory sick pay or the so-called circuit-breaker lockdown, Labour announced 200 new policies in the 2019-21 parliamentary session). It reached what one shadow cabinet minister described to me as “the absolute nadir” when, the afternoon after announcing more than £25bn of spending on education, the party made a further series of announcements the same afternoon. As a result, while Labour under Starmer has many more policy proposals than any opposition party at this stage in the parliament, very few people have a clear idea what Labour stands for. (Indeed, one sign of that is how this week people have been asking what Labour’s position on social care is when it laid out its broad position back in April.)

One Labour veteran in the Lords complained that the party’s communications reminded them of the 1980s when, because the shadow cabinet was elected by MPs rather than appointed by the Labour leader, shadow ministers were incentivised to burnish their own reputations in their briefs rather than to speak with one voice.

As a result, Labour is announcing less and keeping its policies within a broad theme. The party’s summer campaign was on jobs and working rights, which the leadership regards as win-win: it thinks focusing on the quality of work, rather than the number of jobs per se, is a good political seam for them in the country, and has the added benefit of uniting essentially every member of the Parliamentary Labour Party. (That the campaign was in large part fronted by Andy McDonald, who is seen as both a reliable performer on the airwaves and the only remaining shadow cabinet minister with impeccably Corbynite credentials, is a further bonus.) 

That theme was, again, present in Starmer’s announcements at the Trades Union Congress annual conference (as you’d expect). 

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But the other reason is simply and narrowly political: the Labour leader’s office wanted to keep the focus of the care conversation on the details of the Tory pledge, rather than to issue its own policy years out from an election, leaving it to be nicked, battered or simply devoid of novelty. That’s why Labour has both avoided saying something new about social care, or directed journalists and MPs back to what it said in April 2021.

[See also: Conservative MPs have a familiar worry about the Universal Credit cut]

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