Sunday 19 May 2024

What a Card

In the not-at-all-expected announcement that he was throwing his hat in the ring for Islington North, Paul Mason said something that rings true about the state of British politics. He argued the incoming Labour government has one chance to restore popular support in British politics by delivering on its programme. A point that was also echoed by Andrew Marr and has become an occasion for fretting among Keir Starmer's base in the state and among professional/managerial layers. On the one hand, Starmer expends a lot of energy about how things are going to change, but actual promises to do anything are thin on the ground. Labour is producing a set of contradictory vibes, with the result that expectations of what a Starmer government will do are south of rock bottom.

But there is an answer! The very clever strategy people in the leader's office were able to hog political coverage going into the weekend with a Blairite retread: the pledge card. As my wallet is a strange attractor for all the loyalty cards and bits of ID, I happen to have my 1997 original. Comes in handy for infiltrating Labour To Win meetings. These pledges were designed as quick policy wins to show Blair and Brown meant business. There was the punishment of the privatised utilities with the windfall tax. But New Labour meant changed Labour, so we also had "fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders" and "set tough rules for government spending and borrowing".

Starmer's leadership has never pretended originality, and so the resemblance between the 1997 and 2024 cards are more than coincidental. Our new fangled version, with its 'cut NHS waiting times' and 'crack down on anti-social behaviour' are straightforward lifts. The mix of the Milquetoast progressive with the authoritarian and the reactionary continues with 'set up Great British Energy' (which is always mis-sold as a publicly-owned company, when in fact it's a Blairesque Public Private Partnership investment vehicle), and 'Launch a new Border Security Command'. I wonder how many Tory-voting focus groups that went through. And, top and tail, 'economic stability' and 'recruit 6,500 new teachers'. How the leadership managed something less inspiring than Blair's 'New Life for Britain' is a real achievement.

Despite the obvious resemblances the real inspiration for these six pledges is ... Rishi Sunak. At the beginning of 2023, he set out his five promises for government. In case you have forgot, these were halve inflation, grow the economy, get the national debt falling, reduce NHS waiting lists, and stop the boats. An incredibly low effort list of priorities that barely required Sunak to do anything. Taking on board the then economic outlook, falling inflation, GDP growth, and keep tight rein on public spending so debt could fall (as a proportion of GDP) were easy because they would happen spontaneously. NHS waiting lists were a bit of a hostage to fortune, because no Tory government has exited office with waiting times lower than the one it inherited. Sunak might have met this pledge had he decided not to underfund it. And stopping the boats was pure amateurism in the sense he signed himself up to something he couldn't deliver. Hence the grim theatrics of the Rwanda scheme.

Because big brains are in charge of Labour, nothing has been left to chance. Border Security Command, Great British Energy, and anti-social behaviour policies can be brought into being at a stroke of a pen. Economic stability is also relatively easy seeing as Rachel Reeves, when she's not busy plagiarising other people's work, has no ideas of her own and will leave the regulatory frameworks intact and won't haphazardly chop and change the rules like the Tories do. NHS waiting lists are likely to start coming down at the point Labour enters government just as we're over the worst of the seasonal hospital admissions - and this before Wes Streeting's plan to use imaginary spare private capacity. And lastly, 6,500 new teachers works out at increasing recruitment by about 1%. Starmer's government would have to be spectacularly incompetent to not meet any of these aims.

The new pledge card is not the programme for the incoming government, and should not be judged as such. But by setting a low bar in what the Labour leadership takes to be the public imaginary, they can easily exceed their own expectations. On teachers and teaching, where the big challenge is the triple threat of underfunding, workload, and retention, anything on top of the extra teachers' pledge tick the under-promising and over-delivering box. On GBE and BFC, setting them up and branding them provides an illusion of forward motion. And on it goes. Starmer will be able to say his project of authoritarian modernisation, or mission-driven government as he styles it, is well underway.

The problem with this is the assumption the public aren't paying attention and can't smell bullshit. Just as talking about hope a lot does not call it out of the ether, most people won't notice a Labour government unless it materially improves people's lives and is experienced as such. Being able to get doctors' and dentists' appointments, seeing wages consistently rise faster than prices, experiencing the green transition in the form of lower energy bills, these are ways Labour could and should make a difference. And Starmer would be rewarded for enabling this with more future general election victories. But the actual chances for that are very slim. Why? Because of the alliances he's actively pursued with the right aligns him and his project with the interests arrayed against the people - the overwhelming majority - who would benefit a progressive prospectus.


Rodney said...

Just to highlight how rock bottom Labour are setting expectations, they're claiming it will take two parliamentary terms, a decade, for the six pledges to be delivered on:

I agree they're mostly setting expectations so low that they're easy to exceed but the claim it'll take a decade to deliver on the pledges isn't being said very loudly and instead feels like small print. Heaven help us if they really do think they need to pre-empt complaints it took them a decade to recruit 6500 teachers.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Those "pledges" are so lame that it is difficult to believe they are all they can come up with. I suppose they might appeal to a small section of the electorate that is perhaps over represented in marginals , but the idea that they would convince anyone to vote Labour who wasn't already intending to is risible.

Setting up a new Border Force is easy, but also meaningless unless it has some effect. But what effect are they hoping it will have? Apparently, to influence people to vote for them. How daft do they think we are? OK, so, we are generally pretty daft, but even so, this would require a level of non-thinking on a par with a concrete block to be enticed by it. Ditto for GBE. The problem with energy provision is not lack of choice of 'supplier'.

By "Deliver economic stablility" I suspect he means "we won't do anything as deranged as Truss and Kwarteng". But in reality although deliberately engineering instability is quite easy, the reverse is outwith any individual government's control. So, "We won't try to b*gg*r up the economy" would be more honest. The paradox is that by not trying to, they probably will.

Cut NHS waiting times is curious as it is easily measured and so will be used by all opponents, from parliament to media, as a stick to beat him. The easiest way to meet it is to change how its measured - something previous governments have done. By reseting when a wait starts, suddenly the waiting times have dropped! Expect something like that from Wes Wideboy Streeting.

A similar statistical ruse can help with ASB. Just redefine what is ASB and remarkably it has gone away.

The fact they are allowing themselves more than one term to deliver undermines the value these vapid promises might have. Again, it suggests their contempt for the voting public is bottomless. Promise them nothing, then promise to deliver it eventually. They'll lap it up.

Will they though? Starmer has a shoe in because people are just fed up withe the Tories and desperate for a change. But that only applies at this coming election. As you suggest, Phil, Labour will need to deliver something or face being a one term government. Their main hope is that the Tories will slef-destruct after losing and be unelectable for the following election.