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Is Keir Starmer setting himself up for failure?

The problem with the Labour leader’s pledge to give the UK the highest growth in the G7 is how little control he has over it.

By Freddie Hayward

The main pledge in Keir Starmer’s speech in Manchester today was to give the UK the highest sustained growth of any G7 country. The target will be the key metric of Labour’s “national mission” to grow the economy. (The other four missions will focus on the NHS, crime, childcare and clean energy – with precise details to follow.)

The target may prove problematic for Labour in three respects. First, the metric is relative to the rest of the G7. Whether Starmer can claim to have succeeded at the end of his putative first term is dependent on the performance of the world’s largest economies (unlike the target of 2.5 per cent growth that Kwasi Kwarteng announced during his brief tenure as chancellor). It’s out of his control.

Second, it may not be the best measure of the UK’s economic performance. Between 2007 and 2021 the UK ranked sixth on average in the G7 for growth. The whole point of the national mission is that Labour wants to break with the stagnation of the last decade but, starting from such a low base, it may struggle to make up the difference in a few years – even if it does increase the growth rate.

Third, a relative measure of success underscores the impact of Brexit. Since 2016 many key economic indicators such as trade and business investment have fallen compared with the EU. (Starmer says this is because political instability has shaken business confidence, which is true, but not the whole picture.) Labour wants a closer relationship with Europe on everything from scientific research to regulation – that’s been clear for some time – but the growth target will sharpen demands from pro-EU MPs and others for the UK to rejoin the single market and the customs union.

Rishi Sunak chose his own five pledges for their inevitable success or studied ambiguity: halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing the national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and curbing Channel crossings. In contrast Starmer’s five missions are more ambitious, more long term. Sunak simply distilled the crisis management he was already performing. Starmer’s pledges, however, will form the basis of the next Labour manifesto.

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Each set of pledges exposes its author’s belief in their chances of winning the next election. But with his first mission, Starmer is at risk of promising something that’s out of his control. And if he wins office, you can be sure his opponents – internal and external – will be grateful for that.

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