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Labour’s green U-turn explains the need to abandon political targets

The public need a leader who can deliver a target-free message

Photo: Wong Yu Liang/Getty

What does £25bn buy? Not as much as £28bn, but still quite a lot of insulation, solar panels and the like, one would imagine. In fact, it is such a huge sum that managing to spend it all within a mere 12 months would be quite an achievement.

Yet somehow the Labour Party has managed to put itself in the extraordinary position where spending a mere £25bn a year on creating the green economy could be portrayed as failure.

Day after day, Sir Keir Starmer’s opponents are goading him into admitting that, perhaps, the £28bn a year he pledged to the net zero cause is not going to be achieved by an incoming Labour government. He and his colleagues are straining their vocabularies to try and avoid ditching the target completely.

This is simply crazy. The public will not notice if only £20bn a year rather than £28bn is shelled out on greenery by a Starmer administration, and neither do many people put any store on the figure. But, in announcing a commitment to the astronomical figure, Labour handed the Conservatives and their media mates a hefty stick with which to beat them.

If the spurious targets announced by politicians serve any purpose, it is predominantly to arm the opposition. The current Conservative government habitually comes up with targets that it then fails to meet, whether it be for the amount of public sector procurement sourced through small businesses to the increase in the recruitment of secondary school teachers.

If targets are met, it is generally because they were almost inevitably going to be achieved anyway or, more dangerously, that behaviour is skewed in order to be able to claim success. Hence the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, made much of his determination to halve the rate of inflation over the course of 2023 but, given that the biggest driver of the spike in the inflation rate that he vowed to tackle was energy prices – which were bound to come back down at some point – the more remarkable achievement would have been if he had failed to meet the target.

And it is still the case that inflation at the 5.35% for which he was shooting would mean that prices were rising at that amount on top of the 10.7% at which they rose over the previous year. Too many politicians, and sometimes the media, give the impression that falling inflation equates to falling prices, whereas the opposite is true.

Most political targets are fatuous, but determination to reach them can produce risky behaviour. Many government actions during the pandemic proved counter-productive, but one of the more egregious episodes concerned the setting of targets for the number of Covid tests being carried out. The then health minister, Matt Hancock, set his department the task of ensuring that 100,000 tests a day were being carried out. Remarkably, he proclaimed success, but it then transpired that a third of the tests being counted had merely been put in the post.

It is a safe bet that by no means all of those would ever have reached the intended recipients, let alone been used, but the boast was intended to instil confidence in the mirage that the government had the pandemic under control.

William Tell was a devotee of targets, and his son, with that apple perched on his head, surely had a strong belief in the importance of those targets being hit but, in the real world, announcing targets is too often an easy way of achieving a temporary respite from a problem. Then, when the spotlight has moved on to a different problem, that particular target is quietly abandoned.

Since the focus of the targets is usually headlines rather than results, those that are announced often do not bear analysis. Take one of the latest, announced by Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary. She has pledged to cut knife crime “by half”.

Knife crime is undoubtedly a huge problem in the UK. Any government should be determined to deal with such an appalling issue, which is regularly killing young people. But why does Ms Cooper aim only to cut it “by half”? Is she content for the other 50% of knife crime to persist? Why not aim to reduce knife crime by 75% or, even better, 100%?

She knows, of course, that knife crime can never be completely eradicated, but setting a target that indicates a willingness to be content with merely reducing the level is not encouraging for those working to stop the stabbings, often fatal, which are now commonplace.

Rory Stewart, in his book Politics on the Edge, explains how he struggled with trying to produce a manifesto for his attempt to lead the Conservative Party. He was being pushed to come up with “unrealistic promises that can’t be kept”, but believed “that’s why the public is sick of us”. He wanted to avoid committing to any spurious targets.

“Can I not just say I want to make Britain a better and happier place?” he pondered. Maybe the time was not right but, given what has happened since, the public may well be ready for just such a target-free message – if they trust those who deliver it.

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