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Beyond the Narrative
What did we learn from conference season?
We are told before every party conference that the leader will be making perhaps their “most important speech yet”. In reality, unless they are going into the conference with the word “beleaguered” regularly appearing in front of their name, they’ll almost certainly be fine. For struggling leaders a bad speech might sink them, but if they are 20 points ahead in the polls, and coming off a huge by-election win, then they are unlikely to be derailed.
It’s even less likely to be a problem if your opponents are noisily falling apart. I wasn’t at the Tory conference but all of the several dozen journalists, politicians and business people I spoke to who had, were unanimous that it was even more shambolic than it appeared on TV. Even hacks from right-wing papers were shaking their heads at the sheer incoherence of it all. It’s hard to be a client journalist when your political masters can’t figure out what they want you to say.
You can see how the Tories got into such a mess. There is no record to run on and Sunak doesn’t want to take the blame for the failures of his predecessors. It is, though, always going to be extremely hard to run a “change” message as the governing party. Boris Johnson managed it in 2019 by promising to spend a lot of money and attaching his personal brand to Brexit. But Sunak doesn’t want to spend money and any hope associated with leaving the EU has faded. He has nothing else. A rag-bag of random policy announcements about A-levels and smoking certainly won’t cut it.
Even worse than the confusion of the official platform was the circus around it. There was a general consensus, amongst attendees, that it felt more like the conference a party has after it’s lost an election rather than the one before, with all the focus on leadership jockeying and indulging in ideological fantasies.
So the lobby arrived at the Labour conference – which I did go to – primed to write positively about the contrast. As long as Starmer and team could look vaguely professional and serious, then they were going to get good coverage. The narrative is in their favour and that makes politics a lot easier. Announcements that would get ripped to pieces if the lobby were moving in for a kill get left unscrutinised. Dull speeches are lauded as triumphs. You’ve got to enjoy it while it lasts.
I don’t want to be churlish about this. Seeming professional and serious might not seem like a high bar but it’s one plenty of Labour conferences have failed to meet in the past. We shouldn’t begrudge weary Labour folk their raptures at a leadership that can tie their own shoelaces. Starmer’s team are competent, well organised, extremely thorough in their voter research and message design, and ruthless when it comes to keeping the hard left out. As a Jew I was highly conscious of how different the conference would have felt last week with the old guard in charge, and don’t underestimate what it took to achieve that transformation.
But Labour still haven’t begun to resolve, or even acknowledge, the fundamental contradiction in their current position.
Let’s be clear as to what the problem is. It’s not that Starmer “doesn’t have a vision” or “doesn’t stand for anything”. Labour’s “missions” might be a poor campaigning tool (as predicted) but if you bother to read them they’re entirely clear about the country they want to build. And that country is Denmark. Literally in the case of the “opportunity mission” which cites Danish social mobility as the (implausible) goal. Starmer and his team are soft left Labour and want a high-growth, social democratic country with better worker rights, more state direction, and less inequality. They want us to be Scandinavian. Which as visions go seems reasonable enough.
Nor is the problem that “they don’t have any policies”. They have far too many fiddly policies. No one who doesn’t spend their time reading policy documents and going to conferences will have heard of them. Did you know Labour is planning a £2.4k retention bonus for teachers completing the early years framework? I doubt it. Their bigger pledges on housebuilding, planning, and electricity infrastructure are substantive and important, albeit lacking in detail. But that will always be true of opposition parties, who have limited resources. The civil service is much maligned but you do need them to do the work on these complex policies.
No, the problem is very specific. They have no substantive policies that would involve having to spend any taxpayer money. Starmer’s holding position that he wishes to run “a reforming state, not a cheque-book state” is transparent nonsense, an example of what Duncan Robinson at the Economist calls “Reform Fairy” thinking:
“Both main parties agree that although the British state requires a total overhaul, it does not need much more cash. In its bid to move away from the Magic Money Tree, British politics has fallen under the spell of another mythical being: the Reform Fairy. The Magic Money Tree could generate cash at will; the Reform Fairy can apparently improve public services without spending political or financial capital.”
I am always surprised at politicians’ capacity to believe things that happen to be convenient for them at any given time, but I just don’t buy they really believe in the Reform Fairy. For a start when it comes to health, welfare and education – the three departments that account for 60% of all spending – they have no proposals for significant reform. I watched a succession of junior shadow ministers struggle through fringe events on each of these issues, acknowledging the terrible state of things right now, promising a decade of transformation, but unable to fill in any of the steps that might get us there.
The reasons for this are obvious. They are absolutely determined to stop the Tories running a “same old Labour” campaign, or at least not one that seems credible. From an electoral point of view it will work because neither the Tories nor the right-wing press are going to attack them for not pledging to spend enough money. Plus the power of the narrative will protect them from scrutiny. On top of that, it’s now so clear they’re going to win that every media outlet, business, trade union and sector lobbying group wants to be on good terms.
It is, though, going to make those first few years in government much harder because they can’t do any serious thinking about reform that goes beyond the very conceptual stage, without getting into costings.
That doesn’t mean I left the conference without hope. The first big positive was that Rachel Reeves’ team are doing an extremely canny job at shouting loudly about fiscal discipline while ensuring they keep their room for manoeuvre open post-election. There were hints that investment spending could be excluded from Labour’s headline rule on debt reduction (as it was in Boris Johnson’s first two years as Prime Minister). Reeves may have an “iron-clad commitment” to sticking to fiscal rules but there is still definitional space about what exactly they would be.
She also managed to get through conference without ruling out any other tax cuts. My biggest worry for Labour is that at some point over the next year their poll lead dips, the narrative shifts a bit (as journalists get bored) and they get panicked into reducing their fiscal space to zero.
My second positive is that Labour adjacent wonks, who have plausible deniability, are starting to think through some ways through these problems. The centre-left think-tank IPPR published a report that was subtitled, in a direct response to Duncan Robinson’s challenge, “Between the Reform Fairy and the Magic Money Tree”. It acknowledges that spending will be needed, and the short-termist scorecard approach taken by the Treasury is a major impediment to a well-functioning state. Also that the standard “new public management” model of public service reform – with its focus entirely on targets and extrinsic incentives – has run out of road with no obvious alternative offering itself.
I don’t agree with all their solutions. For instance, they propose creating a new category of “prevention investment expenditure” to ensure money designed for long-term preventative interventions on, say public health or reducing reoffending, is better protected. I get the objective but the fuzziness of the line over what counts as prevention worries me. I do, though, like their idea of treating priority social policy objectives in the same way as fiscal ones, with independent measurement as to whether, for example, the government is reducing waiting lists or building more houses. Tying the Treasury into those metrics could help balance the obsession with the spending scorecard. It is also good to see Labour engaging with these ideas.
So there are positive signs, but not yet quite the sense of urgency I’d like to see. While, of course, Labour are aware the country is in a bad way, I’m not sure they yet appreciate quite how much of a challenge it’s going to be. Just in the last few weeks we’ve heard that dozens of councils are approaching bankruptcy; that prisons are now full with those convicted of serious crimes unable to be incarcerated; and that hospitals are already declaring critical incidents before we get to winter. There is still a sense they are over-estimating how far being nicer and more competent that Tory ministers will get them. Its good to know, for instance, that they won’t go ahead with the Rwanda deportations, as this will save time and money. But it’s not going to be nearly enough.
The biggest panel event I spoke at was an online one organised by Citizens’ Advice on the cost of living crisis. Their stats, on foodbank use, homelessness and so on, are all dire. I was most struck, though, by the story of Sanna. A young woman living in a council flat who was already behind on her bills and then lost just under a third of her Universal Credit for a month, because she missed a job centre appointment and was sanctioned. This will push her further into debt. She is already struggling with anxiety and depression, which will now be exacerbated, making it harder to find work. I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up joining the ballooning list of people classified as unable to work due to mental health problems. It was such a clear example of how our current approach to our biggest spending policy area is utterly broken – ruining lives and costing taxpayer money – with no party close to offering a solution. We need that sense of urgency for Sanna’s sake.
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