“In one passage of his speech he addressed the day-to-day impact of the cost of living crisis, whittling away at the things that people value in their lives. Yet Labour has not set out a plan of action to alleviate that very cost of living crisis.”
By Simon Fletcher
Across two speeches last autumn, at the TUC and in his annual Labour Party conference speech, Keir Starmer set about defining expectations of what a Labour government will do, by making it clear that voters must wait for good things, and some good things might not happen. One year on, that approach continues.
At the TUC last year he warned:
“But when we talk about economic stability, I want to be frank. The damage the Tories have done… To our finances and public services… Means things are going to be really tough… Now and during my Labour Government.
We cannot take any risks with the public finances… We have to restore economic stability… Be the party of sound money.”
He was even more clear in his subsequent speech to the Labour Party conference in 2022 that Labour’s approach required “the courage to make very difficult choices. Particularly when managing the country’s finances.” He set out his framework for “sound money” and warned that “we should be clear about what that means. It means not being able to do things – good Labour things – as quickly as we might like. That’s what responsible government looks like.”
These passages in Keir Starmer’s speeches last year were not necessarily the most remarked-upon but were the most important. They sent a signal that “good Labour things” will not necessarily happen, or at least would be delayed. They set the tone for the subsequent twelve months in which Rachel Reeves’ “iron discipline” has dominated.
One year on, in one of the most heavily-trailed lines from his leader’s speech today, Keir Starmer emphasised the need for a “decade of national renewal.” And he warned that the task ahead was a “hard road.” Of course it is true that a sustained period of investment is required and that cannot all be achieved in one Parliamentary term. But that pitch for two terms to deliver is also a means of reinforcing those lines from last year that people have to wait. Wait for growth, wait for the benefits of decisions that may take two terms to work through.
But however much a politician may say that their programme will need more than one parliament to deliver, the democratic timetable is inescapable – the Labour government must go back to the electorate and seek to secure a renewed mandate. At that point voters will judge Labour on whether it has delivered an improvement in their quality of life.
When pressed about potential spending commitments, the consistent message from Labour’s top team has been that growth must come first. Although Keir Starmer was able to push the necessary buttons to galvanise the conference today, this wait-for-growth position still holds firm. In one passage of his speech he addressed the day-to-day impact of the cost of living crisis, whittling away at the things that people value in their lives. Yet Labour has not set out a plan of action to alleviate that very cost of living crisis, which has has seen a dramatic attack on household incomes.
Labour has given no major commitments to resolve the stagnation of wages. Nor has it set out an aggressive policy agenda to correct the collapse in household incomes, through other mechanisms such as a substantial expansion of universal free services. By saying to public sector workers such as nurses during their recent disputes that their pay claims were unaffordable, Labour laid down a marker about spending in the public services. To almost every question on spending and pay, the answer was that growth comes first. Yet polling for 38 Degrees this weekend underlined the total centrality of the cost of living crisis.
A Labour government that delays a material improvement in living standards, or has a programme insufficient to the urgency and scale of the task, will demoralise its electorate and give a defeated Tory party the opportunity of revival.
- This article was originally published by Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left on October 10th, 2023.
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