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20 September 2023

In power, Labour will have to act like a wartime cabinet

Would an “activist” Starmer government have what it takes to rebuild Britain’s collapsing infrastructure?

By Andrew Marr

What’s it all for? We have – probably – a year before we vote, perhaps even less if Westminster rumours predicting a spring or early summer election are true. That means an avalanche of argument, a tidal wave of debate. All that money spent, shoes worn out, keyboards hammered into scrap, larynxes tortured – afterwards, will our lives be better? Or, to put it another way, what would Keir Starmer as prime minister actually do, or want to do?

There is now a brisk, standard answer: he would run an “activist”, goal-focused government. Well, that’s better, clearly, than a passivist, zigzagging one. “Activist government” – not socialism or radical liberalism – has become the core notion Starmer’s Labour wants to fight on. But in the real world, what might this mean?

[See also: The great crack-up]

To grasp that, you need to think about big material changes: the loss of Antarctic sea ice over an area many times the size of Britain, through deluges and droughts; the revolution in industry that is, as a consequence, in process. If Starmer’s five missions for government mean what they seem to, a future Labour government will behave more like a wartime cabinet than a normal administration.

Let’s start with something basic: electric vehicles. At the beginning of the horse-dung-reeking 20th century, there were more electric and steam cars for sale than petrol ones. London had electric taxis by the 1890s – because of their distinctive noise they were known as “hummingbirds”. Many thought petrol cars were smelly, noisy and impractical. After all, petroleum spirit could only be bought in some chemists’ and blacksmiths’ shops, and closing hours were strict. Then… well, something happened. We all are now on the edge of a similar national jolt. It is only seven years, as Rishi Sunak confirmed recently, until all sales of new diesel and petrol cars will be banned. We will soon be nostalgic for today’s roads, cars, petrol stations. We will be driving some German and British electric cars, but more often, the Ora Funky Cat, the BYD, the Chery and the MG – all made in China.

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Britain has 45,000 charging points so far, compared with 8,300 petrol stations. But it needs many more of the super-fast charging points being built alongside main roads by firms such as Gridserve, as well as slower, overnight local charging points. Around supermarkets, retail parks and train stations there is a huge amount of work to be done, and very fast. Billions of pounds’ worth of investment is pouring in, but the shift will require a lot of cabling, cement and skilled workers. For motorists to feel fully secure about setting off, Quentin Wilson, founder of the campaigning group Faircharge, says the growth will have to be exponential.

The CEO of Octopus Electric Vehicles (sister company to the energy group), Fiona Howarth, emphasises the importance of the zero-emission vehicle mandate coming shortly to the Commons, which will require car makers to sell a certain percentage of electric cars, rising year by year. “The 2030 ban makes it real,” she says (and will dramatically reduce the 40,000 deaths per year the Royal College of Physicians estimates come from air pollution). But, like others, she emphasises the resource constraints, including the human ones. If you include the commitment to remove old gas boilers from domestic properties, Britain needs another 500,000 retrofit installers by 2035.

Everyone I talk to in the industry congratulates the Tory government for getting some big things right, notably the 2030 electric-car commitment and starting to get battery manufacturers into the UK. But then they emphasise how much more needs to change. Ian Johnston, who chairs the industry body Charge UK, points out that to install electric chargers in British towns and cities means going through the same slow, constipated planning process as you would for an attic or basement extension, or change of use for a shop. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) worries that the entire UK planning system is gnarled up because of a lack of clarity for planning inspectors. It also thinks that the shift to electric-vehicle chargers and from gas boilers will need “a massive army of skilled people”.

[See also: The Tories are eyeing a spring general election]

Electric cars are only one part of this story. Labour promises insulation of housing across the country, onshore wind, more nuclear power and a major house-building effort. Meanwhile, the NIC says that with a one-in-four chance of a severe drought before 2050, new piping to shift water from the wetter west to the drier south-east, plus more reservoirs, is vital. Everywhere, clearing blockages in planning and investing in retraining will be essential.

Then there are the material resource shortages. Recently, Gary Smith of the GMB union restated his scepticism over Labour’s target for net-zero electricity by 2030, saying that there simply weren’t enough undersea cables. National infrastructure experts confirm there is “an international scramble for cables”.

There are issues with the concrete supply, too. New Civil Engineer magazine has reported that builders blame the crisis-hit HS2 rail line and Hinkley Point C, the nuclear reactors in Somerset, for shortages. One builder working on a national highway scheme was told they were “second in the queue” behind HS2. Others blame the lack of HGV drivers. Either way, according to the Federation of Master Builders trade group, in 2021 nine in ten builders were delaying jobs because of shortages – which also include steel lintels, concrete roof tiles paint, plaster and cabling.

Put simply: do we have the materials and the people to achieve net zero? Again and again, you hear calls for a clearer, more consistent state policy; for a sense of national mission in driving towards a carbon-neutral economy and mitigating climate change. To unleash what needs to be done, “We need to start providing attitudinal clarity and direction about what needs to come first – a framework of prioritisation,” says Toddington Harper, founder of Gridserve. “We need to throw the kitchen sink at this.”

That, I guess, is not a bad summation of one ambition of Starmer’s “activist government”. But there’s a way to go yet. First, Labour has to be clear that it is a moral and political priority not to flinch from net zero, no matter the Tory counter-attack. Second, the party leadership needs to think, not quite about a command economy, but about a centrally directed one. The economist Mariana Mazzucato, with her “entrepreneurial state”, and US officials such as John Podesta and Heather Boushey, have already been influential.

That means overriding departmental boundaries. The HS2 chaos may yet end with a railway running between Birmingham and Old Oak Common, well short of central London, a complete economic absurdity. One lesson is that big infrastructure projects need lifetime-cost budgets up front and should sit outside departmental budgeting, which they otherwise ravage.

Is it possible for the British state to reform itself into an organisation capable of proper planning, prioritisation and long-termism? In the end, the entire promise of a Starmer government rests on the answer. It will require an inner resource-directing team, consisting perhaps of Rachel Reeves, Ed Miliband at energy and Jonathan Reynolds from business, plus Pat McFadden at the Cabinet Office, after a further Whitehall upheaval.

Many readers may feel that a shortage of retrofitters, cabling or concrete is unacceptably distant from a grand, pulse-pumping vision for a new government. They may yearn for a flash of Gramsci, or wonder where Martin Jacques is when you need him. But Harold Wilson would get it. It’s a dangerous world out there. There is considerable reconstruction to be done. A dogged emphasis on industrial priorities has also become a security question; having our own cable and steel manufacturing is essential for national resilience. After the clouds of electoral rhetoric have blown away, rebuilding the state is what Britain desperately needs.

[See also: The Starmer conundrum]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers