Labour’s first 100 days: what is their grand plan for government?

<span>Labour appears to heading to Downing Street, but party officials have warned against complacency.</span><span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
Labour appears to heading to Downing Street, but party officials have warned against complacency.Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

As they ponder the political scene before their return to Westminster after the Easter break, Tory and Labour MPs have detected a shift in the landscape in the past week. Rachel Reeves made the front pages with a tax avoidance clampdown pledge – a measure usually met with an eyeroll within Westminster.

Wes Streeting made waves with a championing of the use of private providers in the NHS, before Keir Starmer secured glowing coverage from usually hostile corners for his pledge to stand by Britain’s nuclear deterrent and match the government’s desire to spend more on defence.

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Even the focus on whether or not Angela Rayner broke any rules in the sale of her former council house in 2015 has been regarded as another indication that the political spotlight is well and truly turning on to Labour, as if its status as government-in-waiting has been upgraded amid a stubbornly large poll lead and a Tory government unable to go a week without a new internal rift.

This shift, and an assumption that Labour will form the next government, causes deep anxiety within the party’s high command, where there is no greater crime than complacency. Yet that anxiety is also driving officials to make more preparations.

Senior figures have been passed work examining why centre-left governments, often taking over from a collapsing populist party on the right, have failed in recent times, in the hope that a first-term Starmer administration could avoid the same fate. Examples in the US, Australia, Germany, Norway, France and Canada have all been studied to discern the mistakes made by centre-left governments that found themselves trying to draw up a political vision once in power.

The lessons from the review, which will eventually be published in a Labour Together thinktank pamphlet, are instructive: the need for a “big picture narrative” in government; policies that hold together the coalition of voters that delivered power; and a plan to neutralise the issue of migration that so often defeats governments of the left.

That list is striking because, for some in the party, it highlights their fear that once in government, the steady, risk-averse “small target” strategy that Starmer and his team have successfully adopted may struggle as they face up to the huge issues facing crumbling public services, sensitivities over immigration and anaemic growth. And they will have to do it all in the face of accusations that Labour’s strongest argument for seizing office was that the party was not the Tories.

It has to be said that some Labour MPs are not convinced that the party is ready. One MP out on the local elections campaign trail last week said he was asked for reassurance by his activists that there was a clear vision and plan should Labour enter No 10. “I had nothing,” they said.

The left is already attacking Starmer. Hilary Schan of Momentum said that his approach “may win friends among Fleet Street and big business, but it threatens disaster in government”.

However, insiders say that the obsession with a “bombproof” campaign is now being complemented by serious thinking on the business of governing. “There is quite a lot of thinking going on,” said one figure in the know. “But does that constitute a nice, publicly announced, philosophically driven policy idea some are demanding? No. But maybe the political moment doesn’t demand that. Having said that, we’re nowhere on immigration.”

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So, should Labour make it over the line and into Downing Street this autumn, what may its immediate moves be? Those involved in preparations say that, in fact, there will be lots to do in the first 100 days – and the fact that the party’s No 1 priority of avoiding money splurges means that cost-free policies have shot to prominence.

Reform of the planning system is emerging as totemic, as it does not require huge funds, can boost a housing issue that unites the party’s current voters – and can help promote growth. Healthy eating – along with the prevention of ill-health – is another easy early hit, while Rayner’s plans to bolster workers’ rights have partly been backed because they do not require huge amounts of new spending.

But others point out that, actually, there is an enormous strategic choice - still live within the party - that will define its opening months and probably those beyond: whether Labour goes for radical moves to bring in funds to rejuvenate the state and increase growth – an option that requires some political pain – or whether it sticks with the strict, self-imposed fiscal rules and hopes that things improve.

“Do you go in with the doctor’s mandate and say: ‘We’ve opened up the patient, they’re riddled with disease and we’re going to have to do some serious and painful surgery,’” said one senior Labour figure.

“Or do you stick to plan A, which is essentially trying to get through those first two years with little ruses, of which they have a few, that will keep the patient alive until they can turn the taps on and perhaps get some revenue from growth? It’s a big strategic call that I don’t think they’ve fully made yet.”

Some believe that, once in power, Starmer will attempt a “softly, softly” approach before realising radicalism is needed. “What’s the growth plan?” asked one insider. “I don’t know, but I hope in the end they realise no one will care if debt isn’t falling for 10 years rather than five, to get things done.”

Nick Macpherson, the former top Treasury official who was in the post for David Cameron’s transition from opposition to government, said that there is one key question for parties making the switch to power: “Can you multitask?” Whatever the crisis is at any one time, could Starmer deal with it while also staying on track with the big picture reforms?

As the election approaches, and as the row over Rayner’s council house continues, it is a question that many in the party hope Starmer and his team are spending more of their time on.