Keir Starmer’s plan for government is vanishing before the voters’ eyes

Andy Davey cartoon
Andy Davey cartoon

The strange thing about Keir Starmer’s policy ideas is that they tend to evaporate as the years go on. He ran for Labour leader with clear, radical pledges: to abolish the House of Lords, waive all university tuition fees and more. Over time, such promises were downgraded then, dropped altogether. On Thursday, it seemed his policy vanishing act was complete. Amid great fanfare in an Essex film studio, the Shadow Cabinet gathered to reveal the latest strategy: to promise, in effect, almost nothing at all.

It’s deliberately minimalist, said Angela Rayner. Labour won’t be promising the earth – or promising anything, as it turned out. The pledge to stick to “tough spending rules” leaves Starmer with the option of defining the word “tough” any way he wants.

“Cutting NHS waiting times” will happen anyway, given that the post-lockdown patient pileup has peaked. Setting up a “border security command” overlooks the small fact that such coordination happens already. This is rebadging, not revolution.

Promising 13,000 more police is hardly radical following a Tory government that promised (and recruited) 20,000 more. Only one of yesterday’s pledges had a firm figure: “to recruit 6,500 more teachers” over five years, paid for by imposing VAT on private school fees. Even if implemented tomorrow, this would mean upping the teacher headcount by 1.3 per cent. An improvement, to be sure, but one unlikely to lead to a school revolution.

My hunch is that Labour is more likely to oversee a great educational recession and end up closing schools every year – as befits a country whose declining birth rate will mean almost 10 per cent fewer pupils by the end of the decade.

No teacher needs to be fired: you just replace fewer of the 40,000 who leave or retire every year. Labour’s only aim is to do better at hitting the teachers’ quota (the Tories fall about 1 per cent short) but the overall headcount will probably decline. In this way, a pledge of “more teachers” will probably come to mean “fewer teachers”.

This is how the words game is played. “Political language”, wrote Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” This sums up political pledges: they always end up as verbal illusions. You work out what’s going to happen anyway (the halving of inflation, waiting lists falling), then promise to make it happen. Both of these examples, of course, are not from Starmer but from the five pledges that Rishi Sunak made last year.

Starmer is now engaged in pledge deflation. Last year, he was promising an economy with the “highest sustained growth in the G7.” Now, he simply says he’ll “grow our economy”: about as low an economic ambition as you can imagine. There was no Blair-style pledge on freezing income tax: no firm pledge on tax at all, in fact. Nor was there anything concrete on defence spending, or any response to Sunak’s recent idea of slowly raising it over the next five years.

This launch was about mood music, to assure voters that Labour’s aspirations are decent and unscary. To keep the streets safe, keep the bills down and not much more. An ex-Tory voter was paraded, to announce his conversion to a cheering crowd.

Neil Basu, a former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism chief, appeared by videolink to deliver his benediction. We heard from a man who says a gang tried to steal his car. And a pensioner, to talk about the costs of heating – and living.

Fuel poverty is a serious business – but the country has less of it under the Conservatives than ever before. And the elderly? The vastly expensive triple-lock pledge has pushed pensioner poverty to the lowest level in history: quite the achievement. Theft? There’s less of it than any time since records began in 1981. But for various reasons, the voter perception is of a country where everything’s falling apart – and of a government that deserves to be booted out. Seeing this, Labour’s strategy is to do or say nothing.

Only one barnacle remains on Starmer’s boat. We were reminded of it when Ed Miliband came on stage like a Shakespearean comedy interlude character, to talk about a net-zero domestic energy sector by the end of the decade. British renewables are cheaper, he intoned – and more secure. This is nonsense, as even the Tony Blair Institute admits. An all-out dash for renewables, it concluded in a report only yesterday, “could increase energy costs or reduce energy security, with major economic and social consequences for the country.” Quite.

So Miliband’s plan would be a disaster, but one that’s unlikely to be ever attempted because it would quickly dissolve on contact with reality. Gary Smith, head of the GMB union, once told me that he doesn’t bother worrying about Miliband’s plan because it’s so obviously impossible.

So why is the policy still there? Perhaps because Labour fears the Greens (who may run them close in Bristol) and needs to keep some delusions going. But the £28 billion-a-year green spending plan, for years the signature Miliband policy, is now abolished – so it may seem cruel to take away what little there is left.

Normally, Oppositions start by mouthing generalities and slowly build up to a solid, policy-rich manifesto platform. Starmer is doing things the other way around.

But as he heads into the summer of an election year 20 points ahead in the polls, this does make sense. The fuzzier his agenda becomes, the stronger his opinion poll lead. Why offer hostages to fortune if he doesn’t have to? His strategy is to look dull, not risky. To present as small a target as possible.

The Conservatives will understandably fume over this. Where are his better ideas? How can he get away with silence on welfare and NHS reform, and the other problems so vast that they seem to be crushing the Government? Can Starmer really win a general election on a nothingburger of a manifesto, his main claim being that he’s not a Tory?

From what we saw (and didn’t learn) on Thursday, that’s precisely his plan. The question, now, is whether the Tories can make voters a better offer.