The Labour Party hasn’t really changed

Keir Starmer has positioned himself as the candidate for change
Keir Starmer has positioned himself as the candidate for change - Anthony Devlin/Getty

The word change was everywhere at the launch of Labour’s election manifesto in Manchester. It is the title of the document and Sir Keir Starmer used it dozens of times. Yet he and his team are trying to persuade voters that they have nothing to worry about, because nothing much is going to change at all.

The manifesto says there will be no income tax rises (and certainly no cuts), no VAT increase, no spending splurge, no reversal of efforts to limit immigration. Indeed, the ostensible aim is to pursue pretty much the Conservative agenda but to succeed where Labour says the Tories failed.

A Labour government would trigger growth, boost Treasury revenues, reform planning, build more homes, reduce debt, cut NHS waiting lists, expand the Armed Forces, make the streets safer, and control our borders. In other words, the change Labour seeks is not one of direction but of governing party. Its hubristic pitch is that the party can run the country better, even though it will be the least experienced administration in history should it win power on July 4.

After 14 years of Conservative-led governments, a sense that “the other lot deserve a chance” is a powerful appeal to an electorate fed up with promises unfulfilled. Jacketless and with his shirt sleeves rolled up, Sir Keir trotted out the usual platitudes that no one could possibly disagree with. The manifesto was also curiously presidential with 33 photographs of him in the document.

Sir Keir would have us believe that, less than five years after supporting a neo-Marxist platform for power, Labour is now a pro-growth, wealth-creating, free enterprise party. Yet it still contains Left-wingers who do not share this worldview. Indeed, until recently they would have included Sir Keir himself. Maybe they still do.

There is a credibility gap a mile wide in this manifesto. No one believes that Labour will cut public services, and yet it would inherit Conservative spending plans predicated on precisely that for many departments.

There is nothing in the manifesto about what happens if the revenues from extra taxes on non-doms, schools and energy companies are insufficient. Everything hinges on generating growth at levels not seen anywhere in the West for years, in a country notorious for poor productivity that will not be improved by Labour’s cosiness with the public sector unions.

As with every manifesto, the devil is in the detail and there is precious little of that in the 132-page document. Taxes will not go up for “working people”, it says – but how are they defined? There is no mention of capital gains tax, inheritance tax or council tax. Middle-income professionals who have already been clobbered by fiscal drag and cuts in allowances should be worried.

The planning system will be overhauled. How? There is scant detail beyond the usual bromides. A new state-owned energy company will help cut prices apparently, even as the oil and gas giants are pushed out of the market by even higher windfall taxes.

Labour says everything has been costed but that is true only for the first year of the parliament. In 1997, Labour promised to keep the same plans as the outgoing Tories, yet within three years had opened the spending taps. As one Labour minister said when the party left office in 2010, there was no money left.

Moreover, the 1997 manifesto was notable for leaving out some of Labour’s most important innovations, such as independence for the Bank of England, announced within a few days of the election, and an attack on pension funds, which came in the first Budget, wrecking final salary schemes.

It is not what is in the manifesto that voters need to worry about, but what is not in it. If the country gives Labour what Grant Shapps has called a “super-majority” on such a deliberately half-baked programme, it will be buying a pig in a poke on the grandest of scales.

Labour will need money to fund its spending pledges; so where will it come from? The promises on income tax and VAT would not stop Labour introducing a wealth tax on assets, especially property, which has long been the ambition of the Left. Extending inheritance tax to pension funds or limiting the tax-free withdrawal, currently 25 per cent, are all open to a Labour government strapped for cash. Ominously, Labour is promising a “review of the pension landscape”. To what purpose?

As part of its “green” reforms, Labour will require all UK financial institutions – including pension funds, asset managers, insurers and banks – to develop and implement “credible transition plans” which are aligned with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. How will that work?

There is too much we do not know about Labour’s plans to trust them and too much of the old, familiar class-based spite to believe the party has changed, even if it has cast Jeremy Corbyn into the wilderness. The Left has been thrown its red meat in the form of removing hereditary peers from the Lords, banning trail hunting (why?), and imposing VAT on private school fees, pushing thousands of pupils into the state sector.

Above all, Labour has never been able to shake off Mrs Thatcher’s observation that socialists “eventually run out of other people’s money”. They will do so again. Sir Keir says he has changed his party for good. History suggests otherwise.