Yesterday, Rishi Sunak gave his big New Year speech. Today, Sir Keir Starmer did the same. Having the two back-to-back, there is a clear contrast between the two.
Whilst the Prime Minister’s address did include some nods to an optimistic, big-picture vision for the country, his focus was on five specific promises – the pledges which are now front-and-centre in the Party’s online campaigning and have been extensively covered in the centre-right press.
Starmer took the inverse approach. Whilst there were a few specific policies – a new, publicly-owned Great British Energy, a big NHS recruitment drive – for the most part his own vision remained in soft focus. In short, it was that the British people are great, they deserve better than the Tories, Westminster is failing, and Labour will empower people, communities, and suchlike to succeed.
This has been a theme of Labour’s for a while. But it was telling that Starmer was very light on detail as to what this decentralisation programme would look like. If he intended to carry forward the proposals in Gordon Brown’s review, this would have been a logical time to announce it. He did not. Nor did any other specific programme take its place.
Why not? Whilst he might be keeping his powder dry, one might infer from the text of the speech that the specifics simply aren’t nailed down yet. This passage, in particular, lends that impression:
“First – we will modernise central government so it becomes, dynamic, agile, strong and, above all, focused. Driven by clear, measurable objectives. National missions. […] We will announce these missions in the coming weeks – our manifesto will be built around them. And they will be the driving force of the next Labour Government.”
The part about “clear, measurable objectives” sounds a lot like, well, Sunak:
“So, five promises – we will: halve inflation; grow the economy; reduce debt; cut waiting lists; and stop the boats. Those are the people’s priorities. They are your government’s priorities. And we will either have achieved them or not.”
One obvious difference is that the Prime Minister actually says what his are, whereas the Leader of the Opposition only offers a sample of his own (specifically, energy). If Labour is going to end up with a clear and enumerated list of missions, that list seems the obvious thing to build a big speech around.
But there is a bigger difference too, in that missions are much vaguer commitments than promises. It is relatively straightforward to compile a list of nice things and make missions of them, but doing so demonstrates, at best, good intentions.
This is especially true when set in the context of Labour’s decentralising rhetoric. Sunak’s promises are things his Government can deliver (or not). Obviously, given he’s setting his own exam, they have been designed to be passed. But he can still be held directly accountable if they’re failed.
It isn’t clear the same will be true of Labour’s missions, whatever they end up being. The handy thing about empowering other people to deliver the positive change they need is that it is then in large part on them whether they achieve it or not.
Railing against Westminster is easy, and popular, but has the added benefit of justifying a programme which would effectively divest a lot of responsibility for delivery from a hypothetical Labour government which would rule from Westminster. It risks retreat into the comfort zone of debating means, without the sticky business of being accountable to the electorate for ends.
Still, we will only be able to judge the extent to which Labour’s proposals fall into this trap once they are eventually presented to the nation. So too their plans for resolving the strikes and tackling the numerous and powerful electoral interests that are at the root of much of this country’s struggle with growth.
A measure of ambiguity is the prerogative of opposition. We may still be more than a year out from the next election, and there would be big risks in setting out detailed policies which might either be stolen by the Government or mauled by a centre-right press which is still, for now, looking for reasons to be nice to the Tories.
But that returns us to the question: if the things actually being announced are weeks away, what was this Coming Soon on: Labour speech for?
The most likely answer is probably just keeping up the sense of momentum that Labour built up during 2022, and try to forestall Sunak getting a comeback-kid narrative off the ground.