OPINION - Labour is learning that to win, it is better not to speak

Sir Keir Starmer and his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have said the money isn’t there to lift the two-child limit in the benefits system  (PA Wire)
Sir Keir Starmer and his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have said the money isn’t there to lift the two-child limit in the benefits system (PA Wire)

On a fine morning in Tooting last Wednesday, the Labour tribe, Keir Starmer and Sadiq Khan among them, gathered to pay its final respects to one of its winners. Margaret McDonagh had been number two in the party at the time of the 1997 election victory and the general-secretary for the 2001 landslide, which more or less repeated the arithmetic of the previous victory. In his tribute to Margaret at the funeral, Tony Blair made the point that politics without power was just dreaming and Margaret McDonagh was never content to dream.

This same message was delivered on Saturday by Starmer at the Labour party National Policy Forum in Nottingham. Starmer quoted Aneurin Bevan, always a useful ally for a tough argument, to the effect that “only by the possession of power can you get the priorities correct”. A 23 per cent swing gave Selby and Ainsty, a strong Tory seat in North Yorkshire, a Labour MP at the by-election on Thursday. All the talk in the Labour party now is of power and how to get the priorities right.

Just because it is said often does not mean it is true to say that Labour has no policy. If anything, Labour has far too much policy and all of it is dull.

The documents submitted to the National Policy Forum, which I have read so that you don’t have to, are stuffed full of more than 300 objectives and targets. Not all of them are policies, as such. There is no mystery about what a Labour government might want to do. Labour has a more precise policy problem than that. Nobody, despite my best efforts, is going to read even a summary of the National Policy Forum documents. Opposition parties are always defined by their most famous policies which are taken to stand as a metaphorical representation of the whole. The precise problem for Labour is that it is in retreat from its own most well-known policies.

Slowly, Labour is throwing off spending commitments that will cause problems in a general election campaign

Labour failed to take the seat of Uxbridge on Thursday in large part because of a reaction against the planned extension of the Mayor’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which stipulates that all vehicles not meeting the emissions standard should pay a daily charge of £12.50. In his speech in Nottingham, Starmer made it plain that he thought the Ulez lost Labour the chance to take the seat: “We are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet.”

Labour is discovering the costs of trying to be a radical opposition. Early in his time as leader, Starmer liked to use climate change as a rhetorical device for definition. It is a way of talking about jobs, science and infrastructure all at once, wrapped up in a serious question on which is he is genuinely committed and which also has the virtue of sounding like the words of a visitor from the future. But Uxbridge showed that this is not easy to translate into policy and that, when prices are rising rapidly, the costs of transition are not going to be popular.

There are a lot of similar promises in Labour’s policy documents. Labour will create GB Energy, a national champion in clean power generation and it will launch a National Wealth Fund that will invest alongside the private sector in gigafactories, clean steel plants, renewable-ready ports, green hydrogen and carbon capture. Labour wants a “green prosperity plan” which will create over a million good jobs and cut energy bills at the same time. Well, don’t we all?

Slowly, Labour is throwing off any spending commitment that will cause problems in a general election campaign. Lifting the two-child limit in the benefit system would cost £1.4 billion and would have the immediate effect of taking 270,000 households with children above the poverty line. Starmer and his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have said the money isn’t there and, in an interview Starmer did with Tony Blair at the Future of Britain conference last week, he even gently mocked those who did not understand the need for discipline.

In Nottingham, the delegates wanted a commitment to more extensive nationalisation, free school meals and a reversal of the policy of turning local authority schools into academies. They got none of them. The by-elections on Thursday seem to vindicate the strategy. Where Labour says least it did most well. Where it was vocal it was punished. Until the economy turns, and then perhaps the polls with them, less will be more.

Philip Collins is founder & writer-in-chief of The Draft