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Political Print: Dogged defence leaves Starmer short of ideas

The Labour leader’s cautious approach may win him power but it won’t meet the scale of the challenges facing the country. By Nick Hughes. 

Sir Keir Starmer is not a man minded to take undue risks. That much has become clear ever since the Labour leader took office in 2020 and began the process of watering down the 10 ambitious pledges upon which he had built his leadership campaign.

At the start of the month, Starmer and his top team welcomed hundreds of business leaders to The Oval cricket ground in London to hear Labour’s pitch to industry ahead of an expected election this year. It was an appropriate setting for a man who increasingly resembles the batsman who strides to the crease practising all manner of extravagant shots only to doggedly block every delivery once he arrives.

Last week, Labour finally bailed out on a flagship pledge to spend £28bn a year until 2030 on green investment schemes if it wins the next election. Starmer, and his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, publicly blamed a deterioration in the economy since the green prosperity plan was first announced in 2021 for their decision to slash annual funding to just £15bn a year, of which only around £5bn is money not already committed by the government. Political commentators, however, have suggested the U-turn is more concerned with neutralising a Conservative line of attack that Labour will have to fund the spending through tax hikes on working people.

With the Conservative Party in a near permanent state of disarray, an ultra-cautious approach may still win Starmer the keys to Number 10, in which case one might reasonably argue that the ends have justified the means. Moreover, Starmer can claim with some legitimacy that a turbulent economic and geopolitical context requires a flexible approach to policy making. Yet the innate caution stemming from its leader exposes Labour to the charge that its programme for government is not commensurate with the challenges facing the country.

Green reversal

The green prosperity plan was widely welcomed when it was first announced – and not just by the usual coterie of environmental NGOs. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said the proposed green investments “send the right signal at the right time” and were something “business can get behind”.

Following Labour’s climb down, analysts warned that the UK risks falling behind in the global race to lead a green industrial revolution. “There are billions of pounds waiting to be plugged into clean industries, but they need the right incentives and policy stability,” said Jess Ralston, energy analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). “This and any further roll backs from Labour jeopardise this at a time when competition is fierce with countries like the US going full throttle to attract net-zero businesses.”

Whoever Labour believes will welcome the watering down of its green commitments, it’s unlikely to be the mainstream business community, reliant as they are on decent infrastructure and a skilled workforce to deliver their own net-zero ambitions. Only last month, the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) published its blueprint for driving the net-zero transition, which called for a robust green industrial strategy from the government and quicker government action on financing the transition to net-zero through the tax system. As BCC chairman Martha Lane Fox said on launching the document: “We will have no habitable planet if we don’t encourage rapid and effective actions.”

Voters too were largely on board with Labour’s original proposal. Polling carried out in July 2023 by Opinium found 45% of the public said they support Labour’s plan to invest £28bn a year into meeting the UK’s net-zero target versus 32% who objected. Following last week’s U-turn, a snap poll by ECIU found double the number of people (31%) thought the decision would have a negative impact on the “cost of energy bills for ordinary people” versus 15% who thought the impact on bills would be positive.

Starmer and his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have made no secret of their efforts to court the support of business leaders and reclaim the moniker of ‘the party of business’ from the Conservatives. Yet in trying to keep everybody happy there’s a risk they end up giving no-one what they truly want.

Health plan

Just as Starmer has struggled to square the circle between the green investment demanded by businesses and Tory accusations of profligacy, Labour has to-date shown little sign of having the gumption needed to take on food industry interests in tackling diet-related ill health.

In January, the party revealed a child health plan its leader said was aimed at repairing the damage caused by years of austerity and chaos. Starmer won praise from health experts for challenging the ‘nanny state’ narrative espoused by certain Conservative politicians and right leaning newspapers that has thwarted so many public health interventions in the past. His recognition that food choices are shaped by the context in which those choices are made aligns with a wealth of evidence on the subject and is not of itself inconsequential.

Privately, campaigners report that Labour’s leadership team, including shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, are giving warm signals towards a more interventionist approach to tackling obesity, but in terms of substantive policy the child health plan was relatively thin. The only food-related pledges were to implement the 9pm watershed for junk food advertising on television and ban paid-for advertising of less healthy foods on online media aimed at children – a commitment that has already been made by the government, albeit one that is subject to a delay until 2025 – and to introduce free breakfast clubs for all primary school children.

Perhaps the child health plan – and Labour’s approach to food policy more generally – will be given flesh when the respective manifestos are officially launched. However, with the polls showing a steady 20 point lead for Labour there seems little prospect that Starmer is about to break with habit and set out the kind of bold policy platform many experts believe is needed to chart a more positive course on the environment and public health.

If the Labour leader really aspires to change the country for the better once in power, at some point he will need to start playing some more aggressive shots.