Guest blog by Nick Tyrone
The polls are so firmly on Labour’s side at present, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see the result of the next general election being anything other than a Labour majority. The Conservative party appears divided, out of ideas and determined to chase a slice of the electorate that is much smaller than they seem to believe. There is a lot of talk about the danger of Labour becoming too complacent about victory in the face of the current polling data, yet there is not enough discussion about a much more dangerous form of laxity that threatens the party: what exactly will they do to fix the country’s problems if indeed the polls are correct and they form the next government? Further to that, there is a question as to whether they are making promises now to help win the election which will prevent them from governing effectively once in power.
An incoming Labour administration will face immediate, massive pressure to get things done. With a large slice of the electorate no doubt having voted for Labour mostly as a means of getting rid of a dysfunctional Tory government, voters may well demand a turnaround in the country’s fortunes that would be nothing short of miraculous. Labour could quickly find itself in a similar situation to where the Tories are now - disparaged by the public for being ineffective and betraying promises, given or imagined. This may happen to Labour for eerily similar reasons to what has finished Sunak and his party.
The Conservatives won the 2019 general election on a policy platform of “levelling up” the country. In doing so, they promised they would make other parts of Britain as prosperous as London, which was all part of the plan to “get Brexit done”. Leaving the EU, after all, was supposed to help make it easier for the government to aid poorer parts of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in becoming much wealthier. While many things have contributed to the Tories falling in the polls to a point where existential wipe out at the next election cannot be completely discarded as wild fantasy, the fact that they haven’t delivered on levelling up is possibly chief amongst them. This is for three reasons: one, it was the biggest substantive policy promise they made during the 2019 general election campaign; two, this promise was vital to the Conservatives being able to win in places they never had before, notably the “red wall” seats, many of which look set to be lost as a result of failure to deliver the levelling up agenda; and three, their failure to make any headway here cuts across any promise they try and make now, both on competency and trust.
There is a lesson in there for the next Labour government: figure out a way to make poorer regions of the UK prosperous or the electorate could turn on you, very quickly. One of the big problems in delivering this may come in the promises Labour have made around fiscal responsibility and not bending or altering any of the rules the Tories have set out in this regard over the last decade plus, added to a promise not to raise taxes or even to spend any more money than the current government. Labour may be making things unnecessarily restrictive for themselves in a bid to ward off Tory election attacks.
Starmer and his frontbench have spoken a lot about economic growth and its importance, and it seems likely that as the general election approaches, they will talk about it even more. This is a good thing – too much left-wing thought over the past decade has been focused on zero-growth or at the very least, minimising the importance of economic growth. This has been self-defeating; Labour cannot pull people out of poverty on a large scale, making poorer sections of the country richer, without a reasonable level of economic growth taking place. The issue at stake should be fair growth, as CPP argues in a series on the topic: how they ensure that economic expansion benefits a wide range of people, not just the very wealthiest amongst us.
This means that Labour cannot avoid the fact that the electorate will be expecting them to make the country not only more prosperous overall (and quickly too) but for that prosperity to be shared in a relatively equal manner across all regions of the country. There is simply no avoiding this. Voters may feel reassured enough into voting Labour by way of promises not to “break the bank” or raise tax, but they will still expect the incoming Starmer government to deliver despite these pledges. They will demand that their public services improve, whatever fiscal framework Labour decides to adopt.
This is why Labour must figure out a plan, now, to give themselves some breathing space in terms of fiscal policy while not feeding the Tories’ election campaign attack lines. Whether it is a plan to borrow a little more to help pay for priorities – the NHS, for example – or to redesign the fiscal rules a little to allow them to spend here and there when necessary, or even raising taxes, some headroom must be created. So long as the plans are specific, spelled out in detail and look and sound credible and further, do not appear profligate, then I feel that Labour will not suffer electoral damage as a result. The British people understand we might need to spend more to improve things. What they want to hear from Labour is that they have a plan that will not bankrupt the country.
In fact, spelling out Labour ideas on slightly different fiscal and economic policy to the current Tory plans could have some distinct political upsides. One of them would be clear differentiation between Labour and the Tories, as well as between Starmer and Sunak. The next election will be a change election, so while I understand Labour’s desire to avoid falling into predictable Tory traps on fiscal and economic questions, they do need to spell out a little that they do indeed represent change. Saying you will do things a little differently to the Tories – again, so long as the plans appear to be thought through in detail by Labour – could be a positive for Starmer, if handled the right way.
Another political upside to setting out a slightly different fiscal and economic approach would be that a lot of voters feel like Labour are going to spend more money and/or raise taxes anyhow. In fact, the Conservatives are almost sure to go hard on this idea during the general election campaign. By laying out exactly what Labour are going to do in this area, they could greatly ameliorate these Tory attacks. It is as though the voters assume Labour will let them down in some way, and they can be led via an effective Tory campaign on the matter to imagine it might be in a big way – however, if they are told by Labour the precise size and scale of the pain that is coming and it’s not all that bad, and in fact seems reasonable, this could allow voters to trust the party a lot more. All while they turn a deaf ear to Tory campaigning around Labour not being trustworthy on the economy.
Labour needs to figure out a way not to get trapped in a situation which may strategically help them to win the next general election but will ultimately restrict their ability to govern properly. In an unavoidable sense, the British electorate will be expecting Labour to level up the country in a way that the Tories promised but ultimately did not deliver. Fair growth is a similar idea to levelling up, coming at the same problem from a slightly different angle – how do we rebalance the economy away from the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer while still managing to grow overall? Whether they know it or not, if Labour wins the next election, they will be expected to solve this problem. And quickly too. It will be a lot easier if they do not back themselves into a corner on policy from which they will not be able to escape.