The opposition is close to 20 points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls for voter intention. But riding high in the polls does not guarantee an election win.
The Labour Party still has work to do to win over the electorate, and the opposition has a plethora of problems to come up with solutions for. Inflation might have fallen but people are still struggling with the cost-of-living crisis; regional inequalities persist; the NHS is flailing with record waiting lists and staff shortages, and long-term sickness is at an all-time high; the threat of climate change’s impact looms; immigration continues to be a divisive issue; record levels of homelessness and social care need are overwhelming local authorities; and the rapid advances of technology are changing the world as we know it.
Keir Starmer has laid out five missions: to boost house-building, job creation, productivity and economic growth; to bring down consumer energy bills through the creation of a publicly owned Great British Energy; to create an NHS fit for the future; to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour; and to reform childcare and education systems. But which of these missions requires the most attention? Spotlight asked policy experts: what is the key problem that Labour still needs answers for?
Helena Bennett, head of climate policy, Green Alliance
The benefits of green investment will outweigh the costs over the medium to long term, but Labour has yet to show how bold it’s willing to be to capitalise on this. Polling suggests a majority of voters think Rishi Sunak is doing a bad job at delivering his pledge to grow the economy. This may be why the green prosperity plan remains at the heart of Labour’s election pitch. Yet, under pressure from the Conservatives, Labour has clarified that £8bn of the emissions-reducing spending announced by the government since 2021 will be counted towards its total. Labour has also conceded that it will gradually ramp up investment over the parliamentary term, rather than committing to £28bn from the start.
Labour may feel under pressure after Jeremy Hunt made substantial tax giveaways in the Autumn Statement, and the Chancellor also massively slashed public investment over the coming decade. If Labour wants to reverse this, there is little point in drip-feeding public investment in the green transition. By investing early and at scale, the government is more likely to crowd in private-sector financing, lock in efficiency gains, boost productivity and lower consumer energy prices for longer.
Jennifer Dixon, chief executive, the Health Foundation
There’s no shortage of priorities. Clearly, Labour should improve access to NHS services by reducing waiting times for hospital treatment, mental health services, emergency care and improve access to community and primary care. Invest in and reform social care. Develop a cross-government approach to improving health and reducing inequality, especially in areas and groups where avoidable ill health is prevalent, for example in the north-east. Reduce the number of working-age people who are either economically inactive due to ill health, or at work with a work-limiting illness.
But how? Back in the early 2000s the New Labour recipe was big investment backed by targets, and reform. For the NHS, reform included a blend of incentives based on an assumption that more competition and patient choice would deliver better services. The impact of these reforms was equivocal, but the mix of investment and targets succeeded, for example, in reducing waiting lists.
Given the mounting challenges, including the pressure on public finances, other opportunities must be grasped this time. The most significant of these is technology, in particular AI, and this should be the driving force for change and reform. NHS staff will be key leaders of this, so a good start would be to avoid picking unnecessary fights with them.
[See also: The best Spotlight policy comment of 2023]
Ryan Jude, cabinet member for climate, ecology and culture, Westminster City Council
Labour has bold overarching green finance policies: the green prosperity plan ramping up to £28bn per year and the £8bn national wealth fund being underpinned by a 3:1 leverage ratio to crowd in private capital. Keir Starmer also recently reiterated Labour’s plans to make the UK the “green finance capital of the world”. This direction is welcome, but Labour needs to provide details on how this will be achieved.
The financial services review announced by Tulip Siddiq, with an impressive line-up of advisers, will set the direction of Labour’s approach to regulation. This should focus on delivering and strengthening plans set out in the government’s green finance strategy and should acknowledge that regulation alone will not get us to net zero – but will be impactful alongside the targeted public spending and private finance mobilisation that the green prosperity plan aims to achieve.
Electorally, political parties need to also link green investment more strongly to voters’ real-world outcomes – how will green investment be felt by voters, through their energy bills, health benefits and beyond? Answering this, coupled with the details that the market requires, will help ensure voters and businesses understand and support Labour’s green finance policies.
Kevin Ferriter, chief economist, Labour Together
Labour has committed to get Britain building again and end the housing crisis. The package is compelling. Planning reform means Nimbys (the Not-in-My-Back-Yards) will be encouraged to respond to the question “how” not “whether” to approve a development. Reform to purchasing rules will mean the returns of developments go to communities, not speculators.
Delivering this effectively requires coordination and the provision of capacity to local authorities. At Labour Together, we have supported the creation of GB Homes. This would develop a national strategy for home-building. It would work with regional and local authorities to develop plans, and it would encourage greater private investment, while spreading the proceeds across the country.
Sarah Clarke, president, Royal College of Physicians
Supporting our existing workforce is key to getting the NHS back on a sure footing. All major parties need to recognise that improving recruitment and the retention of staff is essential for a sustainable NHS. We hope to see comprehensive plans for improving NHS working conditions, such as flexible working. Addressing ongoing concerns about pay must also be top of any government’s to-do list.
The next government must get a handle on reducing avoidable illness and preventing ill health. It is key to reducing demand for health services and creating a healthier nation. The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), as convenor of the Inequalities in Health Alliance, is one of over 250 organisations calling for a cross-government strategy to tackle health inequalities, looking at the role of every government department and every policy lever to take action on what makes us ill in the first place. This includes poor housing, employment, how much money you have, air quality, and the availability and marketing of food, alcohol and tobacco. As a survey from RCP revealed in January 2023, almost a third of physicians had seen more people with illness due to their living conditions over the prior three months; we must see the government do more to tackle the social determinants of health.
Josh Simons, director, Labour Together
The next election should be about the Conservatives’ record. Labour must build a credible offer that explains why and how Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves will deliver the change Britain needs, without making the election a referendum on Labour. Pursuant of this, Labour could say more about two things. First, Labour must win the argument to distinguish investment from day-to-day spending in voters’ minds. Sometimes, political arguments are too fundamental to be fudged because they are central to the political space you need to govern. This is one of those. Voters understand that borrowing to buy a house is prudent and wise. Labour can make the same case for leveraging private investment in roads and rail, housing and clean energy to boost productivity and wages for everyone.
Second, Labour must not forget that for millions across the country, there are few more significant broken Tory promises than levelling up. Labour has a real story: replacing transfers from Whitehall to fix plant pots on high streets with a mission to boost the productive capacity of towns and regions across the country. But they must tell that story with the same candour and clarity that so many voters feel it with.
Ayeisha Thomas-Smith, executive director, New Economy Organisers’ Network
The biggest challenge for Labour in 2024 will be how it manages the political tension between a public that wants to see big improvements in wages, public services and its communities, and the fiscal straitjacket the party has put itself in, which seems to promise little in the way of new money for day-to-day services. This challenge will be further agitated by the current lack of a clear strategy on corporate governance and a coherent vision for businesses. A serious Labour offer would mean going big on economic change and using a likely large majority to change the fundamentals of the British economy for good.
Jack Shaw, local government expert and affiliate researcher, Bennett Institute for Public Policy
Labour does not yet have a coherent vision for how it will address the collapse of public services. Prisons are overcrowded; courts are facing record backlogs; school buildings are crumbling; the private sector has underinvested in utilities and taxpayers are picking up the tab; local authorities are scaling back services; and the NHS continues to face challenges on multiple fronts. If Labour wins power, it will inherit a complex set of challenges, including high inflation and interest rates – even if they are on their way down. It has exercised fiscal discipline to date, but fixing our public services will not come cheap. Reforming public services is necessary, but alone it will not fix the challenges Labour faces.
Matt Davies, UK public policy lead, Ada Lovelace Institute
There is a pressing need for a positive vision for artificial intelligence (AI), one that proactively steers innovation towards societal benefit. AI promises so much, from scientific discovery and better public services to tackling climate change – but in its present form the AI sector is highly resource intensive, concentrates power and drives harms such as misinformation, exploitation and over-surveillance. AI and other data-centric technologies often don’t work as intended, and can deepen existing inequalities.
Labour doesn’t need to accept this “off-the-shelf” AI paradigm from Silicon Valley – and we know the public doesn’t want it to. The levers of government could be used to build a more accountable homegrown AI sector delivering real societal and ecological benefit, centring public perspectives and supporting Labour’s five missions.
Some pieces of the puzzle are already there, including the AI Safety Institute, which is bringing leading technical expertise into government, and a new £900m public compute resource. But more creative and inclusive thinking about our emerging AI future is needed, whether that’s a “BBC for data” or the establishment of public options for AI. Joining up these dots into a coherent industrial and regulatory approach won’t be easy – but if Labour can do so successfully, the prize is huge.
Derin Kocer, project lead, the Entrepreneurs Network
The key problem is clearly growth. To deliver it, technology should be Labour’s superpower. The transformative potential of novel technologies, such as AI, will fundamentally change how we engage with work, social life and public services. Although its start-up review was welcome, Labour has yet to reveal policies that can match this potential and help Britain be a more innovative and entrepreneurial nation. Immigration should be at the heart of this agenda.
The UK is well-placed to lead Europe on innovation. The EU’s premature interventions to regulate developing technologies will incentivise entrepreneurs to build in Britain. Labour should focus on creating a “testbed nation”, where start-ups can launch, experiment and grow easily with access to the necessary talent.
That’s why Britain’s doors should be open to European entrepreneurs and technologists. This means unashamedly defending high-skilled immigration, even though it may seem politically difficult to do so. Voters rightly care about this issue, but Labour should understand that their views are nuanced – the majority of Britain is proud to be home to the world’s most competitive individuals. As the Entrepreneurs Network found, 39 per cent of the UK’s fastest-growing businesses had a foreign-born co-founder last year.
That’s why Labour should ensure that international students who study in Britain’s great universities are able and incentivised to stay and build a life in the UK. Similarly, academics and researchers who are inventing the future should be exempt from salary thresholds and welcomed into the UK easily.
Sarah Woolnough, chief executive, the King’s Fund
National affection for the NHS has at times hindered improvements to health, particularly when important services outside of the NHS, such as public health and social care, have been overlooked as political energy is expended on acute hospital services. The Labour Party’s ambition to place a greater emphasis on primary and community services is very welcome and has the potential to catch illness earlier and provide patients with more options beyond having to turn up at over-stretched hospitals.
But this has been a political ambition for decades, yet the rhetoric has not translated to reality. Making good on the party’s commitment to bolster community services will mean grappling with knotty issues such as making careers in community services more attractive, improving outdated GP and community health buildings, and rebalancing financial investment between hospitals and community services.
Additionally, while Labour has committed to boost the pay of social care staff, it has yet to set out how it would introduce long-overdue reform of the sector. A lack of action by successive governments has led social care services to spiral into crisis. If Labour is serious about putting social care on a sustainable footing and ensuring people’s care needs are met, then it needs to put more flesh on the bones of its plans for reform.
Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive, the New Economics Foundation
Labour has committed to tackle the housing crisis by introducing the largest volume of affordable homes in a generation. This is absolutely critical if we are to stand a chance of improving living standards and reducing inequality. What we need to see from Labour now is a plan to fund and build social housing at scale, and we know that this will not happen if it is left to developers who are driven by profit. Reforming the planning system is only one part of the equation, and what we need is a proper skills strategy, tax levers to help shape the market and fund developments, and powers for local authorities to meet the needs of their communities.