Labour has a great plan for winning — but for governing?

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What do we do now? Film fans may recall the final scene of The Candidate in which an unexpectedly elected senator asks this question of the campaign chief whose cunning has delivered victory. With Britain seemingly months away from a Labour government, one wonders if, on the morning after the election, those in the party will find themselves asking the same thing.

Many predict a Keir Starmer government will be more left-wing than voters expect, reverting to statist instincts once the election is won. Possibly, but this may be because there is an arguably more alarming concern: its cautious campaign strategy has left too many gaps in its plans for power.

For while Labour has an effective plan to win, it is not obvious that there is as yet any corresponding strategy for governing, certainly not in the transformational way voters seek. There are missions, targets, new bodies to power growth and reviews a-plenty. But these are less than a programme.

There are areas of clarity. We know Labour wants to create significant new employment rights and wants more decentralisation. Major planning reform is promised and, if successful, this could be the most consequential first-term achievement. There is a plan for a publicly owned clean energy company, but talk of a new collaborative industrial strategy is still sketchy. 

Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, is building up cogent proposals on NHS reform but delivery will be far from easy and will still need upfront funding.

The firmest governing principle is that shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves will not allow unfinanced spending. This is essential to reassure voters. But with growth prospects limited, her acceptance of recent Conservative tax cuts means money will remain tight. Proof of how the campaign has limited Labour’s options came this week with the hoary old pledge to find money by raising £5bn from closing tax loopholes and further cutting perks for UK-based non-doms.

These constraints leave the country and the party flying blind on how Labour might address the huge issues that voters expect to be tackled. The answer appears to be — slowly. The crisis in social care is acknowledged but the only idea is to raise wages, which must come from central funding. The scaling back of green investment plans raises questions about the 2030 target for decarbonising the electricity grid. 

On the toxic issue of immigration, Labour has little more to say than that it will be better than the Tories in deterring and processing clandestine asylum seekers while seeking a more holistic solution to global migration. Fine as a soundbite, but there is no reason to expect great success here. Then there is the shocking backlog in criminal courts, the crisis in local authority finances and a university sector that is struggling with chronic underfunding. 

On education, Bridget Phillipson has promised a review of the curriculum and another of childcare provision, but it is not clear to what end.

Campaign tactics preclude bold promises on the EU. But how exactly will Labour meet its pledge to “make Brexit work”? Some incremental changes are sought; some hope that a closer security relationship will open doors, but hope is not a plan.

Historically, the most effective first-term ministers have been those such as Gordon Brown or Michael Gove, who arrived with a clear strategy for what they wished to achieve. Of how many shadow cabinet members is this true?

There are areas where planning is visible. One policy insider says Reeves, Streeting and Ed Miliband, climate change spokesman, are the most advanced. But there are too many promised reviews driven by the campaign need to say both something and nothing. 

Some front-benchers are moving to bolster their teams with more experienced advisers. Starmer has famously hired Sue Gray from the Cabinet Office as chief of staff to plan for government. But allies worry she is too often diverted into political and campaign issues. 

There is an absolute logic to Labour’s safety-first campaign strategy. Against a divided, exhausted and politically bankrupt government it is enough to offer a fresh team of people with decent values and hopefully good character. The Tories have long since forfeited the benefit of the doubt and they, too, lack credible answers on the questions Labour is dodging. Indeed, their emphasis on spending cuts make those questions even more challenging.

Starmer’s approach essentially is to win first and figure the rest out once in power. Reeves’ fiscal caution is vital in this context, though even allies fear she will succumb to Treasury orthodoxy in office. No doubt she will find unmentioned ways to boost some tax revenue but the main hope is that vanquished inflation and an improving economy ease the spending constraints. 

After four election defeats one cannot blame Labour for playing safe. But unlike 1997, there is no benign economic inheritance to give Starmer the time to work out what he wants to do.

The next government faces major challenges, many of which have been left unaddressed for too long. To manage expectations, Starmer talks of his work being a two-term project. But he is unlikely to enjoy a long honeymoon. Politics is more volatile and voters less forgiving. Labour may not have time to learn on the job.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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