Keir Starmer’s government plan is deteriorating before the eyes of voters

The strange thing about Keir Starmer’s policy ideas is that they tend to disappear as the years go by. He ran for Labor leader with clearly radical promises: abolishing the House of Lords, waiving university tuition fees and more. Over time, such commitments were downgraded and collapsed altogether. On Thursday, his policy appeared to have lapsed. In the middle of a big show at a film studio in Essex, the Shadow Cabinet gathered to reveal the latest strategy: not to promise, in fact, almost anything.

It is deliberately minimalist, said Angela Rayner. Labor will not be promising the world – or promising nothing, as it turned out. The pledge to adhere to “tough spending rules” leaves Starmer free to define the word “tough” anyway.

Cutting “NHS waiting times” will happen anyway, as the backlog of post-lockdown patients has peaked. Establishing a “border security order” ignores the small fact that such coordination already occurs. This is not a rebadging, a revolution.

Promises of another 13,000 police are hardly radical after the Tory government promised (and recruited) 20,000 more. One of yesterday’s pledges had only a firm figure: “to recruit 6,500 extra teachers” over five years, paid for by levying VAT on private school fees. Even if it were implemented tomorrow, this would mean a 1.3 percent increase in the number of teachers. An improvement for sure, but unlikely to lead to a school revolution.

My guess is that Labor is more likely to oversee a major education recession and close schools every year – as befits a country whose birthrate is falling by almost 10 per cent less pupils by the end of the ten years.

There is no need to fire any teachers: you only replace less than the 40,000 who leave or retire each year. Labour’s only aim is to do better in meeting the teacher quota (the Tories fall about 1 per cent short) but the overall number of employees is likely to decline. In this way, the promise of “more teachers” probably means “fewer teachers”.

This is how the word game is played. “Political language”, wrote Orwell, “is designed to make lies true and murder respectable, and to make the fair wind look solid.” This sums up political promises: they are always verbal illusions. You work out what’s going to happen anyway (halving inflation, falling waiting lists), then I promise it will happen. These two examples, of course, are not from Starmer but from the five commitments made by Rishi Sunak last year.

Starmer is now engaging in pledge deflation. Last year, he was promising an economy with the “highest sustained growth in the G7.” Now, he simply says it will “grow our economy”: about as low an economic ambition as you can imagine. There was no Blair-like commitment to freeze income tax: no firm commitment to tax at all, in fact. There was also nothing concrete about defense spending, nor any response to Sunak’s recent idea to raise it slowly over the next five years.

This address was accompanied by mood music, to reassure voters that Labour’s aspirations are reasonable and unfiltered. To keep the streets safe, keep the bills down and not much else. A former Tory voter went on parade, to announce his conversion to a cheering crowd.

Neil Basu, former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism chief, appeared via video link to give his blessing. We heard from a man who says a gang tried to steal his car. And a pensioner, to talk about the heating costs – and living.

Fuel poverty is serious business – but the country has less of it under the Conservatives than ever before. And elderly people? The hugely expensive triple-green pledge has pushed pensioner poverty to an all-time low: quite an achievement. Steal? There is less of it than at any time since records began in 1981. But for various reasons, the perception of voters is that of a country where everything is falling apart – and a government that deserves it. Seeing this, Labour’s strategy is to do or say nothing.

There is only one barn left on Starmer’s boat. We were reminded of it when Ed Miliband appeared on stage like a Shakespearean character, to talk about a net-zero domestic energy sector by the end of the decade. Britain’s renewable energy is cheaper, he said – and more secure. This is nonsense, as even the Tony Blair Institute admits. As a conclusion on renewable energy, he concluded in a report yesterday, “it could increase energy costs or reduce energy security, with major economic and social consequences for the country.” Enough.

So Miliband’s plan would be a disaster, but one unlikely to ever be attempted because it would quickly disintegrate on contact with reality. Gary Smith, the head of the GMB union, once told me that he does not bother to worry about Miliband’s plan because it is clearly impossible.

So why does the policy still exist? Perhaps because Labor is afraid of the Greens (who could run them close in Bristol) and has to keep some delusions going. But the £28 billion a year green spending plan, for years Miliband’s signature policy, is now over – so it might seem cruel to remove what’s left.

Typically, the Opposition begins by mouthing generalities and slowly builds up to a solid, policy-rich manifesto platform. Starmer is doing things the other way around.

But heading into the summer of an election year with a 20-point lead in the polls, that makes sense. The more vague his agenda becomes, the stronger his lead in the polls will be. Why give hostages a fortune if they don’t have to? His strategy is to look dull, not dangerous. Present as small a target as possible.

The Conservatives will laugh at this. Where are his better ideas? How can he get away with silence on welfare and NHS reform, and the other problems so big that they seem to be pressing the Government? Can Starmer really win a general election on any manifesto burglary, his main claim not to be a Tory?

From what we saw (and didn’t learn) Thursday, that’s exactly his plan. The question, now, is whether the Tories can make a better offer to voters.

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