UK's Labour sets out plans for government

Labour leader Keir Starmer outlined his plan for government (Oli SCARFF)
Labour leader Keir Starmer outlined his plan for government (Oli SCARFF)

Britain's main opposition Labour party on Thursday set out its stall for this year's general election with six key pledges to voters in a de facto campaign launch.

The official five-week election campaign only starts when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak names a date. So far, he has only said it will be in the second half of the year.

Nevertheless, both Sunak, who heads the ruling Conservatives, and Labour leader Keir Starmer have switched to campaign mode.

On Monday, Sunak urged voters to keep faith with the Tories even after 14 years in power marked by austerity measures, Brexit, bitter political in-fighting and scandal.

Labour has been consistently polling well ahead of the Conservatives for the last 18 months, putting Starmer on course to become prime minister as the leader of the largest party in parliament.

He laid out Labour's "first steps" for government at an event in Essex, a key battleground area in southeast England.

Starmer promised economic stability, shorter health service waiting times and a new border security command to tackle irregular immigration.

He also vowed to establish a publicly owned clean energy company, crack down on anti-social behaviour with more neighbourhood police and recruit 6,500 new teachers.

"I'm not going to give you gimmicks," said Starmer, who paced the stage in a white shirt, sleeves rolled up.

"There's no quick fix to the mess that the Tories have made of this country. But this is a changed Labour party with a plan to take us forward."

- Labour's 'missions' -

The pledges, largely made before, are intended to add some flesh to the bones of five "missions" Labour says will spur a "decade of national renewal" after four consecutive terms of Tory rule.

Many commentators likened them to the pledge cards brought in by Labour's most successful leader, Tony Blair, whose 10 years as prime minister began with a landslide victory against the Tories in 1997.

They are set to feature on advertising vans and billboards in target constituencies across England in what Labour says is its most expensive ad campaign since the 2019 general election.

At that vote, Labour under the leadership of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn suffered its worst defeat in nearly a century, as Boris Johnson romped home with his promise to "Get Brexit Done".

Starmer, a centrist pro-European former lawyer, has since moved Labour to the centre ground to make the party a more palatable electoral force.

The Conservatives meanwhile have replaced their leader twice, turning on Johnson after his handling of the Covid pandemic and one scandal too many, then forcing out Liz Truss after just 49 days.

Former finance minister Sunak, 44, has sought to repair the damage caused by Truss's disastrous mini-budget of unfunded tax cuts, which spooked financial markets and sank the pound.

But he goes into the election with the Tories' reputation for economic competence tarnished, and riven by ideological splits between moderates and anti-immigration, free market right-wingers.

- 'Tough spending rules' -

Starmer, 61, promised to implement "tough spending rules" to prevent further misery for people who have seen their household budgets squeezed by high inflation and mortgage hikes.

Sunak, who is hoping for better economic conditions by the end of the year, has to hold an election by January 28, 2025. He is using the time to try to keep his party together and revive its fortunes.

On Monday, he warned that Labour would jeopardise UK security, insisting his party could still win the election.

Johnson's predecessor as premier, Theresa May, said Thursday she believed a Labour win "is not a foregone conclusion".

It would require a massive swing to secure a majority, she told reporters, adding that the voters she met were less enthusiastic about Starmer than they were about Blair.

"The view on those doorsteps is different to the feel pre-1997," May insisted.