When Keir Starmer began ditching the pledges he’d made during his leadership campaign one by one, he made another pledge to deliver £28 billion worth of green investment per year. Unsurprisingly, this pledge has now been consigned to the towering trash heap of promises made by the current Labour leadership.
On the same day that climate scientists announced the world had breached the warming limit of 1.5 degrees centigrade above preindustrial levels, Starmer effectively announced that he had given up the fight against climate breakdown.
Most of us watching the great moving-right show expected Starmerism to become much less radical in government. After all, the institutions of the British state are highly conservative, and the political projects that come into contact with them tend to become less radical as a result.
As Ralph Miliband wrote when considering the potential of parliamentary socialism, capitalist state institutions exist to protect the “foundations of society.” While political parties may bicker over individual policies, the function of the state is to generate consensus among power blocs in order to preserve the status quo.
So genuinely left- and right-wing political movements tend to be dragged towards the center when they achieve state power. The astonishing thing about Starmerism is that it appears to be dragging itself towards the center without the need for much external pressure.
The relentless shift toward the right we’re seeing within the Labour Party in opposition will not slow when the party goes into government. If anything, it will speed up. Where will this steady rightwards drift leave Starmer’s policy agenda?
Starmer and Reeves’ “fiscal credibility rule” commits the party to closing the deficit on current spending within their first term in office. This aim could conceivably be achieved through maintaining — or even increasing — existing levels of spending alongside significant tax rises.
But Reeves has pledged that Labour will not raise taxes, and nor would they introduce any new taxes on wealth. With this promise, the fiscal credibility rule becomes a fiscal straightjacket, which will force the party to continue to cut spending on vital public services that are already at breaking point.
Most of us are aware of the deep crisis currently gripping the National Health Service (NHS). Waiting times for ambulances and accident and emergency services are up sharply, and many patients are languishing on waiting lists while their conditions deteriorate. It’s becoming harder to get an appointment with a general practitioner and it is effectively impossible for many people to access NHS dental care, meaning that many patients have resorted to pulling out their own teeth with pliers.
Less well-known are the crises afflicting adults’ and children’s social care. Adults’ social care, paid for by local authorities, has largely been outsourced to private care homes, many of which are owned by extractive private equity firms that brutally cut costs — compromising patient care — in order to extract as much money out of public coffers as possible.
And children’s social care has already passed the breaking point. Rising poverty and inequality have dramatically increased pressure on the system, with many more children being placed in local authority care, often with an array of complex needs. The failure to properly care for these children and young people means they are far more likely to end up homeless, facing substance abuse problems, or interacting with the criminal justice system.
In short, our failure to invest in public services is creating massive demand on other public services, as well as contributing to a general sense of social breakdown. Labour’s fiscal credibility rule means it will not be able to combat a single one of these trends.
Starmer’s response to this criticism is that the party is going to grow its way out of the problem. By focusing on economic growth, Labour argues that it will create jobs, reduce poverty, and increase tax revenues to pay for public services.
The major problem with this argument is that GDP growth is a variable over which the Labour leadership has little control. Not even the Communist Party of China, which has an astonishing level of control over the domestic economy, can force its way to economic growth without massive unintended consequences.
Labour’s £28 billion green pledge was supposed to be the mechanism through which it would secure long-term economic growth.
Green investment would support the UK’s economy and society in a number of ways. First, interventions like improving insulation would reduce energy bills, create thousands of jobs, and reduce emissions. It’s a complete no brainer.
Second, investing in the research and development of green technology has the potential to increase productivity, as well as deliver new solutions to climate breakdown. Third, investing in improving our crumbling infrastructure — especially in the regions — would create jobs, improve productivity, and reduce regional inequality, while also helping in the fight against climate breakdown.
£28 billion was never going to be enough to achieve all of these aims simultaneously, but it would have been a start.
But now that this is gone, there is no way that Labour can promise to grow its way out of the current economic malaise. The British economy will continue to be buttressed by economic forces largely beyond politicians’ control, and Keir Starmer has now stated outright that he will never touch the levers that could be used to respond.
All that remains of Starmer’s policy agenda are some vague pledges on workers’ rights that, according to the Financial Times, might not last very long either.
Starmer is often likened to Tony Blair — a prime minister rightly the subject of a great deal of criticism from the Left.
But the thing about Blair is that he actually did invest in public services. Social security also became more generous — particularly for children and pensioners.
There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make of New Labour’s economic policies. Stealth privatization continued in the NHS and throughout the public sector, which increased costs over the long run. The tax credits system was poorly designed and acted as a subsidy for low-paying employers. And inequality remained high throughout the New Labour years as Blair and Gordon Brown refused to increase taxes on profits and high incomes.
But Starmer’s policy agenda lies far further to the right than Blair’s. If current policies are maintained in office, we will see basically no changes in macroeconomic policy under a Labour government. In other words, Starmer will continue the disastrous austerity agenda that has now become the default fiscal orientation in the UK.
This is not Blairism. This is something far, far worse.