Keir Starmer moves to tighten control of Labour policy development

Shadow ministers have been told that new fiscal commitments require central approval – and warned off big spending.

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What is Labour’s policy platform under Keir Starmer? Recent interviews with shadow cabinet ministers have been notable in failing to answer that question, to the chagrin of some on the left. Now a letter from the new leadership to its frontbenchers has made clear that the process of doing so will be tightly controlled and heavily circumscribed.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, wrote to colleagues last night to impart two messages. The first is that they are not to propose any new policy that has implications for the tax and spending commitments of a future Labour government without first clearing it with her and Starmer’s office. If they do, there will be no support for the policy from the party machine.

It is “vitally important”, Phillipson says, “that new policies that entail spending commitments, underwrites, tax cuts or tax rises are not developed in isolation but are instead considered as part of Labour’s overall economic offer to the country”. Recipients are in no doubt as to who will design that offer. Centralisation is the order of the day.

Her second message to shadow ministers is that they should try to come up with policy interventions that do not involve big fiscal commitments. Those who want to take new ideas to the media are told: “The heads of policy in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office can help you plan and develop such interventions short of making spending commitments including calling for structural reform, executive actions, reviews, regulatory changes and new guidance.”

In one respect, Phillipson has done nothing new. Frontbenchers who wanted to adopt new policies that required new spending under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had to clear them with the last shadow chancellor and Phillipson's predecessor, Peter Dowd. Economic aides in Corbyn's office had to be looped in too. McDonnell's team spent much of 2019 reviewing the so-called grey book of costings with shadow teams, and required them to meet a new set of criteria on the environmental impact of spending before it was approved. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls employed a similar process. Requiring central approval is not a novel or uniquely authoritarian step in of itself.

What is revealing about Phillipson’s edict is the implicit critique it offers of the old guard. Read between the lines and it is difficult to escape the characterisation of the 2019 manifesto as incoherent. Starmer criticised its “policy overload” during the leadership campaign, and in tightening control of the policy process it is hoped there will be a tightening of the offer, too. That may well be bad news for those who came to enjoy greater sway over policy development under Corbyn: namely, the unions and the ecosystem of left think tanks that sprung up and found favour during his leadership.

It also tells us something important about the new regime. One of the most common criticisms of Starmer’s approach levelled from the left is that neither he nor his team are presenting an alternative vision – just look at the rough ride shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds got for refusing to outline Labour’s preferred timeline for reopening schools on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday at the weekend.

Phillipson’s letter makes clear that this is a deliberate gambit. “The current period underlines that occasionally circumstances will demand a swifter policy response and temporary spending measures, but the same process should still be followed, and decision making will be expedited,” she writes. “However, commitments made in this moment, and specific government action demanded at this time of crisis, have significant fiscal consequences for years to come. We must be aware of how the Conservatives will seek to use this moment to frame our attitude to public spending in the years to come.”

With four years until the next election, Starmer and Anneliese Dodds have taken the decision to wait and see just how public attitudes – as well as those in Downing Street – shape up.

Read Phillipson's letter in full:

Dear colleague,

I am writing to outline the way we are going to develop new policies with direct fiscal implications as a collective frontbench team.

The credibility of our policy programme will not be determined by the plausibility of popularity of individual policies. It will instead be set by how our policies come together as an overall offer to the British people as an achievable roadmap to a distinctly fairer and more equal society and economy; and whether the Labour Party are trusted as capable of delivering that policy programme. It is therefore Equally it is important that the way that policies are costed and modelled is consistent across our policy programme so that we can have confidence that any policy costings will be able to withstand public and media scrutiny.

That is why I have been asked by the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow chancellor to work with colleagues to develop all policies with direct fiscal implications. When a colleague wishes to propose a policy with direct fiscal implications, they should notify me and the head of policy in their area in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office long before any planned intervention. Policies with direct fiscal implications should not ordinarily be developed unless they are intended to form part of our next manifesto. We have the time to get these things right for the world in which the next Labour government will take office, and we should use that time wisely and carefully. This sort of lead time will give us enough time to work with you to ensure that all policy is costed as credibly as possible and that there is an assessment of all policies’ place in Labour’s overall policy offer to the country.

The current period underlines that occasionally circumstances will demand a swifter policy response and temporary spending measures, but the same process should still be followed, and decision making will be expedited. However, commitments made in this moment, and specific government action demanded at this time of crisis, have significant fiscal consequences for years to come. We must be aware of how the Conservatives will seek to use this moment to frame our attitude to public spending in the years to come.

We are all collectively responsible for developing a credible and popular economic policy programme that we can and will deliver in Government, so this process will apply to all teams including the Leader of the Opposition’s Office and the Shadow Treasury Team. Policies which appear in draft media interventions which have not gone through this process will not receive sign off or support from the Party. It is therefore essential that we all use and develop the full range of policy options at our disposal for media interventions. The heads of policy in the Leader of the Opposition’s Office can help you plan and develop such interventions short of making spending commitments including calling for structural reform, executive actions, reviews, regulatory changes, and new guidance.

This process is not designed to limit the scale of our ambitions, but rather to ensure that all our policies are properly calibrated, so that we can achieve the biggest difference in government for the British people. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Bridget Phillipson MP
Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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