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14 June 2024

Is Labour truly radical?

By adopting the Tories’ fiscal framework and staying silent on tax rises, the party is accepting key parts of the status quo.

By Freddie Hayward

Labour’s manifesto should not have been a surprise. Nothing new was announced. Instead, it is a 136-page collation of the policies – which have been abundant, whatever critics say – that Labour has announced over the past two years. The tone, content and message are familiar: the country is broken; Labour will fix it.

This predictability reveals the key fact about this election: that the result was decided long before by Labour’s wily manoeuvres and the Conservatives’ self-immolation. For the first time, a poll last night had Reform beating the Tories. I naively thought the Conservatives would feign unity and professionalism once Rishi Sunak called an election because it would determine whether they were employed or not. But even self-preservation, that defining Tory characteristic, has been put aside.

The Tories briefed for months that a head-to-head, presidential-style election would benefit Sunak. Labour disagrees. Keir Starmer is plastered across the party’s manifesto. His foreword is entitled “My plan for change”. In it, he strikes a nationalist tone (“Every great nation is held together by shared beliefs. To outsiders they may not seem exceptional or distinctive, but they are essential for a sense of collective national purpose… We are still a great nation”). He criticised the Corbyn project’s “gesture politics”, by which he means the obsession with identity and ambitious economic plans.

Most striking was his promise to eject from government the principles that have guided administrations since 2010. (“We can turn the page on a set of ideas that, over 14 years, have consistently left us more vulnerable.”) That is ambitious. He is promising to usher in a new politics.

Which invites the question: how different is Labour to the Tories? If the Conservative Party was not so incoherent, disunited and enamoured with cutting taxes, then Labour’s promised departure could be interpreted as the latest iteration of the shift towards a more active state, a scepticism towards immigration, and the prioritisation of public services over austerity. Labour’s manifesto offers similar promises and solutions to the 2019 Conservative manifesto, with the added promise to restore dignity to public life. But the Conservatives messed things up. There have been too many versions of Conservatism since 2010 to provide a simple answer to the above question.

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With today’s Tories at least, there are now some clear dividing lines (as George sets out in his excellent analysis). Labour wants a more active state, for instance, which in practice means encouraging local government’s control of buses, taking rail back into public ownership, and unashamedly promoting infrastructure building. Labour does not match the Tories’ wild promises to cut taxes, either. Nor could you imagine the current Conservative Party promising to improve workers’ rights in the way Labour is.

But being different to the Tories does not make a party radical. Labour’s priority “to rebuild Britain” seems to be “to change how Britain is governed”, rather than establishing a new political consensus. The same message is summed up in Rachel Reeves’ promise that “stability is change”, or Starmer’s demand for probity and service in public life.

Adopting the Tories’ fiscal framework and staying silent on tax rises means that Labour is accepting some of the basic tenets of the political status quo. You wouldn’t expect the party to take risks in its manifesto. But that also makes the claim that Labour is turning away from the ideas of the past 14 years seem far-fetched – at least, for now.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

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

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