Unlikely as it may seem, there is at least one person in the country who at least on some level seems to deeply believe that Rishi Sunak is popular with the British public. Unfortunately, that man is the leader of the opposition.
Keir Starmer was nearly off to a good start in 2024 – having finally seemed to realise that the public needs something other than managed expectations and promises of responsibility. Starmer finally allowed himself to say the word “hope” and offer up a sense that life could be better under a Labour government. What he did next, however, risks ruining any good progress that might have been made.
Rishi Sunak torpedoed his own popularity and that of his party through a combination of two factors. The first was to promise he was thinking about the “long term”, only to then cancel one long-term policy plan after another – not least through watering down the UK’s climate commitments. The second was to constantly vacillate over decisions, U-turning on his U-turns until the government was merely going round in circles.
Labour has one flagship policy: offering £28bn a year of investment to shift the UK towards becoming a net-zero economy. It is a good policy, too: it is about investment, not spending, it is good for jobs, good for economic growth, and good for the planet.
And yet for some reason, Starmer seems determined to water it down, refusing to commit to it publicly and allowing endless briefing wars over scrapping it to hit the media. It all feels grimly familiar, as if Starmer is determined to import all of the worst traits of Sunakism before he even enters No 10.
There is nothing that could be as damaging to Labour as ditching this policy would be, and even floating it regularly is doing harm. It is idiocy and political self-harm on a scale that could easily undermine Labour’s commanding position. It would also be a moral failure, and bad policy, to boot.
The supposed rationale for looking at watering down Labour’s flagship spending commitment is that the Tories may use it as an attack during the election campaign, to paint Labour as a threat to public finances and as profligate public spenders.
The party is very obviously scared of its own shadow on this front: Rachel Reeves has successfully convinced Starmer that finances will be tight, which is true, though the shadow chancellor may have been too successful on this front – Labour will eventually need some policies other than “thou shalt not spend” and these are slow in delivery.
Given that, the internal critics of the policy might seem to have a point – except that public polling by More In Common shows that Labour’s voters are hugely supportive of the Green New Deal policy, and Labour’s own internal polling is reported to show the same. Attacking Labour for investing in the future would not be an effective Tory line.
What would be effective is Starmer showing himself to be as much of a short-sighted political incompetent as Sunak. The prime minister has made unforced error after unforced error this year by sacrificing long-term policies for short-term political advantage, which then failed to materialise every time.
Sunak tried to make waves by watering down the UK’s net-zero commitments and delaying the shift to electric cars, which caused his polling ratings to sink even further while damaging the UK’s standing at Cop28. He then turned his government into a laughing stock by cancelling HS2 and offering nothing better than fixing some of London’s potholes in return.
It is staggering that someone in either Starmer’s office or that of Reeves is trying to make Labour do the same – to water down a flagship policy, especially one with such an obvious climate focus, in the full view of the public. It is absolute political imbecility just on that reasoning alone.
That is not the only way in which backing down from such a policy would be moronic, of course. Central to Starmer’s thesis for government – which is based on the probably correct assessment that public finances will be tight for the foreseeable future – is the idea of prosperity through growth.
It will take increasing the UK’s productivity, and so its economic growth, to make households actually feel better off. That means policies that will actually boost productivity are vital to Labour’s whole strategy.
One policy they have on this front is planning reform, to make building new homes or businesses easier – but otherwise the cupboard is quite bare.
Except that the £28bn a year mooted under Labour’s Green New Deal is not like Liz Truss’s unfunded tax cuts. It is investment in jobs and growth – new, future-proofed, skilled jobs, like those created by Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act in the US (his version of a Green New Deal, but rebranded to be about the economy).
The centrepiece of Labour’s theory of growing the economy is, in fact, that £28bn investment in jobs for the future. Paul McNamee of Labour’s Climate and Environment Forum thinks there is a strong case for the party making this argument for the new investment more central.
He notes that “families enter the Christmas period anxious about high energy bills, the cost of living and stagnating growth”, but says that “done right, the Green Prosperity Plan will tackle those issues head-on”.
McNamee’s argument here is essentially that rather than wavering over its commitment to green investment, Labour should double down on it, but focus on its benefits to energy prices, jobs, and growth – rather than let it seem like a policy that is only focused on climate change.
Recriminations within Labour surfaced immediately after the Guardian’s report late last year that Starmer was wavering on his commitment to green investment. Some fingers pointed at Reeves and her team, with their worry that if this commitment is made, Labour might have little to invest elsewhere.
Others suggested that Labour’s influential campaigns chief, Morgan McSweeney, had taken the wrong lessons from the party’s narrow defeat in Boris Johnson’s old Uxbridge seat, lost on the issue of Ulez (London’s ultra-low emission zone, which, mere months after its deployment, has already all but vanished from the headlines).
But whoever is pushing this destructive and wrongheaded vacillation is much less important than the fact it is being tolerated – and responsibility for that falls on the leader himself.
It is the right thing to do, both politically and for the country, for Starmer to make his commitment to green investment implacable, put it at the centre of the party’s manifesto, and to make sure whoever is briefing against it stops doing so. There is no time like the present.