Given the scrutiny of Keir Starmer’s first year and the performance of his shadow team, it is worth recognising the difficulty of their task in the current environment – including the pandemic, Brexit, the tumultuous events in the USA, the government’s “vaccine bounce”, the daunting “Red Wall” challenge and the 2019 election disaster.
It is highly unlikely that Labour will have an overall parliamentary majority until the 2030s. We have around three years of Boris Johnson and to achieve a swing enabling parliamentary control at the next general election would be unprecedented. It will then be one or two years before we can make any impact. Thus, we are looking at the next decade before we achieve anything at all, by which time the world will have changed.
But that should not throw us off course from our chosen strategic path. The trouble is that there is no clear framework within which to craft a strategic direction. That is the missing link. There is no context into which the many policy initiatives are being created and communicated. Without it, the majority of the public have no clear idea of what Labour stands for. Sadly, that applies to many party members and supporters, too.
An opposition’s job is to oppose and to present itself as a credible government-in-waiting. To succeed, it must have strategic clarity covering the waterfront of policies to achieve our vision. So far, we have not opposed vigorously enough and we are not seen as a credible future government. But above all, the party has shown no strategic aptitude.
Labour needs a clear framework to guide the creation of our vision, decision-making, priority-setting and communication. Such a framework would clearly lay out the future nature and direction of the country. In other words, it would illustrate what the UK will look like in its economic, social and environmental dimensions after a period of Labour rule. This thought leadership is necessary regardless of the many possible scenarios that may exist when we eventually gain power. Degrees of emphasis and priority may change, but the overall vision would not.
So far, we have seen individual initiatives proposed on a whole host of policy issues, from climate change to the NHS, education to transport, defence to taxation, justice to democratic reform, and so on. There is little linkage between them, no notion of priority among them, little reference to an overall game plan and a low level of understanding by the public at large. They are not ring-fenced into a strategic whole surrounded by a powerful framework.
Such a framework would be bounded by Labour’s values, the overarching vision it has for the nation and its citizens, and the expected overall economic, social and physical environment that it found itself in (different scenarios require articulation, although it is not difficult to project the Tory trajectory). What follows are some simple examples of scenarios that we need to create. They are different to election manifestos, which are inevitably more granular. They are longer-term, more ambitious in scope and serve as a context for individual initiatives. They are for illustration rather than advocacy.
Take education. Assume Labour is aiming for a society based on lifelong learning, free at the point of entry, equally available throughout the nation, providing knowledge and skills for both employment and leisure, offered in a variety of modes and media, addressing those with special needs, the elderly and new immigrants. It would seek quality of provision over points and grades, and eliminate the real and perceived discrimination between academic, vocational and leisure-based education.
The employment conditions of all those involved in the education sector, from dinner ladies to headteachers and technicians to vice-chancellors, would be fair, more equal and based on meaningful consultation. Private schools would be deprived of their charitable status. The percentage share of education in the GDP “pie” would increase. Training and development by employers would be an integral part of the whole. Funding would be provided not on the current, short-term “what can we afford today” basis but on a longer-term cost/benefit analysis and its economic and social return on investment.
The issues surrounding income, taxation and benefits are perhaps the most complex we might have to face at a level of principle, as well as the cost and efficiency of the inevitable project implementation. All the more reason to create a vision for these now. It might include the creation of a universal basic income for all individuals attracting a nil rate tax band. Once the level is set, for those in employment it might mean a “top up”; for those not earning, such as pensioners, children and the disabled, it would be a right.
State pensions, child allowances, unemployment benefits, council tax rebates and a whole host of similar transactions would become redundant. Regressive taxation would be phased out, even VAT could be re-engineered to make it fairer if abolition were too complex or costly. National Insurance payments would be phased out and integrated into income tax. Tax loopholes of any sort would be closed for both individuals and corporations. Income tax would be more steeply progressive after incomes five times the basic income level. Minimum wage levels would be strictly enforced, supported by a fully transparent, legally-backed system of regulation that would also expose other employment abuses.
We need to specify the type of economic landscape would we want to include primary and secondary industries, from agriculture and extraction to manufacturing and the service sector, as well as a picture of our desired trading relationships. There would be a detailed breakdown of each sector to include an assessment of its contribution to the nation’s wealth and how they link to the overall strategy. Whilst the notion of a mixed economy is likely to continue to dominate the landscape, there would be clarity as to which sectors would be publicly owned, like the nation’s infrastructure including transport, digital and health.
Throughout the construction of the scenarios, there would be continuous reference to our basic values such as equality, fairness, access to justice, a set of participatory democratic processes and real transparency of government, corporate and other organisational actions and similar criteria. They would be properly costed and accompanied by an outline plan for implementation. Public expectations need to be tempered with reality particularly regarding the time to implement reforms.
Would the adoption of a strategic process like this one result in the creation of an impossible dream? Not if it is taken seriously, replaces the current vacuum and is accepted as the missing link enabling clear communication. This would, in turn, build significantly more public credibility around the idea that we are a government-in-waiting. There is nothing to lose by thinking this way and thus begin the long journey to a successful and enduring period in power and shared prosperity.