Can Keir Starmer’s Five Missions Rescue the UK?
A Labour government by 2025 is looking very likely. But Keir Starmer's 'Five Missions', however laudable, could crumble against the very forces that make politics fail.
Why Politics Fails, comes out in the UK in just a few days, on March 30th! It’s almost your last chance to PRE-ORDER it - here. Pre-orders are especially helpful now because you’ll get the book in a few days anyway and it all adds to the initial charting of the book. So if you’ve been umming and erring - which would make you very much like me - now is a brilliant time to strike! Amazon UK link is here. Waterstones link is here. Blackwells is here. And, for the brave among you, there is even an audiobook. Who wouldn’t want to listen to me for ten hours..? If you can only handle six minutes, I talked about the book on Matt Chorley’s Times Radio show this morning.
Today’s Substack draws heavily on the logic of the book. Most of us broadly agree on five big social goals - democracy, equality, solidarity, security, and prosperity. But we struggle to attain them since our individual political incentives override our common objectives. Every political party must meet these challenges too. This Substack looks at the landscape that the Labour Party face as they plan for a 2024 election and whether Keir Starmer’s ‘Five National Missions’ can really make a difference.
Although their lead in the polls has closed to just fifteen points, it’s a brave person who thinks Labour won’t come out ahead in the next General Election. And right now, they are on track for a majority. Indeed, should you wish to you can plug current polling into the dandy General Election Resimulator I created a while back to see how polls translate into seats on the current boundaries.
The last time that Labour took over as the party of Government, a mere quarter of a century ago, their first term was an unusual mix of evolutionary and revolutionary.
On the former, the Blair-Brown team largely stuck to the spending framework established in the Major government and created five tests for joining the Euro that would conveniently never be passed.
On the latter, there was a striking range of institutional upheaval, from the independence of the Bank of England to devolution in Scotland, Wales, and London, the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Act, and the Freedom of Information Act. Phew.
Somewhere between evo- and revolutionary was the gradual bulwarking of Britain’s welfare state, including a massive increase in benefits target to children or pensioners, countered by growing conditionality for working-age adult benefits.
That is a lot.
And while Starmer may not end up with a Blair-like majority - though many of the current polls suggest precisely that - the experience of 1997-2002 shows us just how much legislation can pass when the political tides turn.
But here’s the mystery. What exactly do we expect a Starmer government to do? Many of the announced policies so far have been pretty small bore - ending the VAT exclusion for private schools, reversing the Hunt Budget change to pensions lifetime allowances… zzz…zzz…
That’s not entirely fair, there has been some signposting about bigger changes - to childcare, to police funding and governance, and more dramatically, the abolition of the current House of Lords. But in many cases, the details are very far from being spelled out. That’s understandable - wise even - at this stage in the electoral cycle. But it does contribute to the general sense from focus groups that people don’t know what Keir Starmer’s Labour stands for.
And that, rather belatedly, brings us to Keir Starmer’s “Five Missions”. A few weeks ago, to initial fanfare followed by wavering interest, Keir Starmer announced Labour’s ‘Five Missions for a Better Britain’. Although not yet on a laminated card like Tony Blair’s pledges from 1997, or God forbid, chiselled into stone like Ed Miliband’s, these five missions give us a good sense of what Labour’s next election campaign might look like. And indeed, what they plan on doing should they win a majority.
So what are the Five Missions?
Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7
Make Britain a clean energy superpower
Build an NHS fit for the future
Make Britain’s streets safe
Break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage
Having written a book - Why Politics Fails (you may have hard about it) - looking at the ‘five political traps of the modern world’ – democracy, equality, solidarity, security, and prosperity – and my interest was piqued by Starmer’s five missions. Broad and ambitious, they also map onto the traps that I’ve identified. Which means laudable goals may yet come to naught.
The problem Starmer will face is that once you try to implement any of these Missions, you enter the world of trade-offs. And now the vague sunny goal that everyone agreed on is beset by individual interests and disagreements. And those disagreements are the core of politics - they cannot be wished away or somehow squeezed out. They will have to be faced head on.
There is often a desire for politics to be apolitical – perhaps this is why Starmer’s goals are so carefully crafted to appeal universally. But politics lies everywhere, ready to upend any carefully crafted ‘mission’. And so, assuming he stays “on mission”, Starmer faces tough trade-offs, perhaps at election-time but definitely if he takes Labour into government.
To escape this set of traps won’t be easy. It means designing institutions carefully and inculcating the kinds of social norms that underpin rather than undermine your policies. A dash of rhetorical skill and charisma wouldn’t go amiss either. Starmer will have his work cut out.
Let’s look at the missions in turn and where the traps may lie.
Take “Break down barriers to opportunity at every stage”. Starmer is trying to hit a sweet electoral spot for Labour. But doing so inadvertently springs trap number one – equality – by focusing on equality of opportunity. The problem here is the tension between wanting equal outcomes – a core demand of the traditional Labour base – and seeking equal opportunities. Equal opportunities often lead, inadvertently, to unequal outcomes: beneficiaries of previous expansions of education have formed a well-to-do, dominant graduate class.
Education matters more than ever for life outcomes in Britain. And this means Labour is caught in an electoral trap – its old base was school-leavers but university graduates made up almost two-thirds of 2019 Labour voters. Getting more equal outcomes for the former may mean taxing the latter, those who have benefited from greater equality of opportunity.
We can see the challenge facing Labour when we look at the voting behaviour of under-fifties in the General Election of 2019. Labour had a large lead among graduates and postgraduates but it was much closer for young people with lower education - indeed, among those with just GCSEs, the Conservatives led. There were also a huge number of non-voters (the grey bar) among less educated young people in 2019. Widening opportunities almost certainly means targeting resources at those who didn’t vote Labour - or at all - in the past. There are electoral opportunities but also risks here.
How about “Build an NHS fit for the future”? The pallid state of the NHS is central to Labour’s electoral strategy. And the NHS’s position as national religion will likely make that effective. The British public crave solidarity – we want to be looked after when we get sick.
But, again we face a trap. With an aging population, paying for Britain’s health will only get more expensive. And here Labour will run up against the British desire for taxes more suited to an American-style private healthcare system.
As can be seen in the graph below, I find the British public want lower taxes on everyone earning under £150,000. This figure comes from a conjoint experiment, where we asked people to compare two ‘tax schedules’ with different marginal rates at incomes below £12,500, between £12,500 and £50,000, between £50,000 and £150,000, and over £150,000. Tax nerds among you will notice these match up to the pre-Jeremy Hunt tax bands (tax-free allowance, basic rate, higher rate, additional rate). In all cases, except over £150,000 the most popular levels were at or below the current rate. Younger citizens in the workforce already facing the UK’s highest tax burden since 1950, may balk at paying the health bills of the retired.
Starmer’s third mission focus on security. “Make Britain’s streets safe” means double-downing on one of Jeremy Corbyn’s few successful pitches – increasing police funding to cut crime. This mission is electorally crucial for Starmer. In a recent survey I conducted, pictured below, those people who voted Conservative in 2019 but are now considering Starmer’s Labour are far more socially authoritarian than long-standing Labour voters. They fear anarchy more than they fear tyranny.
But Labour needs to beware the security trap. A ‘war on crime’ may well attract back these voters but potentially at the cost of Labour’s 2019 coalition of social liberals. And the recent record of British policing is hardly encouraging, from the murder of Sarah Everard to the multiple rapes committed by PC David Carrick. The British public might wonder if it also needs protecting from the police themselves. Starmer may find himself simultaneously needing to strengthen and weaken the police.
Then we have two missions that are about securing Britain’s prosperity. “Make Britain a clean energy superpower” and “Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7”. Sounds great! The challenge to both goals is that they will only pay off in the long-run.
The prosperity trap that Labour will face is that British politicians are ultimately ruled by the short-run electoral cycle. Labour has had previous with policies where the costs are incurred now and the benefits are far away –Tony Blair introduced ‘baby bonds’ in 2005, but the first beneficiaries only received their cheques during Boris Johnson’s government.
There are plenty of short-term temptations that might drive Labour away from long-run plans centred on growth and combatting climate change. Will continuing an energy-price guarantee mean failing to wean Brits off gas? Will Labour really be able to resist the calls for massive increases in day-to-day spending on health and welfare, and channel the money to improving Britain’s desultory public investment in research and design?
And, then there is Britain’s hellish housing market. Does Labour have the political capital and patience to combat the forces of NIMBYism? In a recent survey, I found only 38 percent of Brits were willing to support new houses being built in their local area. When the costs of building are angry voters bemoaning new roads and less green space, and the benefits are grateful homeowners at an uncertain point in the future, will Labour have the energy to fundamentally reshape British housing?
Starmer’s five missions address Britain’s equality, solidarity, security, and prosperity. But they are missing one crucial goal: democracy. Starmer’s five missions and economically and socially ambitious but, other than abolishing the House of Lords, they are politically timid. There is no mission to change how Britain votes, or who they can vote for. And that will be fundamental to achieving his five missions.
The reason that British governments find it hard to make stable long-run policy, or to balance our desires for a European welfare state with American taxes, boils down to the political institutions that British politicians face. Few governments can resist the allure of Britain’s hyper-centralised state – why empower regions to make their own decisions, if they might disagree with the Cabinet of the day? Why cater to minority interests when Britain can be ruled through wafer-thin majorities? And why aim at policies that pay off in the future, if the other side can claim credit?
How do other countries resolve these problems? Well, their politics often fails too! But those countries with proportional representation electoral systems do seem to find it easier to keep to long-run policy goals. The political scientist Irfan Nooruddin makes a strong case for this here, arguing that coalition governments make political promises more credible because governing parties won’t be easily able to reverse them without losing one of their coalition partners, and hence office.
Countries with PR systems also appear to have lower economic inequality and more robust welfare states. Of course most PR systems are in continental Europe and there may be a myriad of other reasons they have these commonalities. And the current chaos in Israel suggests the magic of PR can’t make deeper societal divisions disappear. But our own political volatility and slash-and-burn politics comes at least in part from the sharp swings endemic to our first-past-the-post electoral system.
Could abolishing the House of Lords really solve Britain’s political problems. It depends what it’s replaced with. The second chamber does at least have the current benefit of pouring cool water on ambitious governments. But it fundamentally lacks electoral legitimacy, fueling an understandable populist discontent. An elected second house might resolve this problem but it could create its own. A chamber with its own mandate might clash with the Commons, potentially causing the gridlock so common in America. If Starmer means business with his reforms to the Lords, he will need to have answers to how a new second chamber can stop British politics from failing.
If Keir Starmer wins office, however initially popular his missions, he will face a series of profound political traps that could hamstring him. Without deeper political reform – to our electoral system or to truly accountable local government – Starmer may find his Missions Unaccomplished.