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Sir Keir Starmer has decided that his own personal credibility is a less important asset than Labour’s economic credibility. In the same week in which he publicly defended the importance of the party’s plan to spend £28bn a year on the green transition, he has dumped that same plan — or at least heavily pared it back.
Labour will now spend just £4.7bn a year, though most of its specific climate commitments remain in place and unchanged — for all its loudly trumpeted commitment to fiscal credibility, Starmer’s party had managed, for two years, to have a policy commitment to borrow £140bn while only having a clear plan for how to spend £23bn of it.
Labour’s retreat reflects a number of changing tides in politics. The first is a global backlash against climate action and with it, a heightening of the political difficulties around green measures. The UK, whose relative consensus on climate policy has long been a global outlier, now looks rather more like a normal European country as far as green politics are concerned.
Labour politicians and strategists often point out privately that when they committed to the original £140bn figure, interest rates were at record lows. Equally importantly, they faced a Conservative prime minister in Boris Johnson whose closest allies were committed to tackling climate change and whose former energy secretary Alok Sharma shed tears onstage as COP26 concluded.
Now, they face a prime minister in Rishi Sunak who is busily and cheerily retreating from many of Johnson’s more ambitious pledges, and whose close ally and secretary of state for energy security and net zero Claire Coutinho, attacks climate “zealots” and criticises Labour for fictitious plans to tax meat. Both Sunak and Coutinho will look like tree-huggers compared to the cadre that will probably succeed them at the top of the Tory party.
But the retreat also reveals, or rather confirms, a number of stories about what is happening in the upper echelons of the Labour party. The first is that Starmer is prioritising shrinking Labour’s vulnerabilities to Tory attack lines and, relatedly, a categorical statement from the Labour leader is therefore worth very little.
Most Labour politicians who cite former premier Harold Wilson among their influences are really saying that they like the idea of winning but without having to upset anyone on the left. Starmer may be a rare Labour politician who remembers that the word Wilson’s cabinet allies and rivals most frequently reached for when asked to describe him was “devious”. But some in today’s shadow cabinet remember — and worry — that Wilson struggled to win a majority in his first election and that his government was a byword for chaos and bitter division.
Bitter division has certainly marked the Labour party’s two-year retreat from its 2021 climate pledges. Depending on who you believe, the lengthy and all-too-public flight from the spending pledge is the fault of shadow climate change minister Ed Miliband for bouncing Starmer’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, into the policy, the fault of Reeves for embracing it, the implacable opposition of senior politician Pat McFadden to it, or the indecisiveness of Starmer in choosing between them all.
What is certain, regardless of whose fault the long rows over the policy were, is that it has also revealed how the Starmer project is one in which, for the moment at least, aides matter as much, if not more than, shadow ministers. Talking to shadow cabinet ministers and Labour MPs, a frequent topic is frustration at what is often dubbed “the boys’ club” of Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign chief, Matthew Doyle, the communications director, and Matt Faulding, the Parliamentary Labour party secretary and the aide who more than any other has shaped the incoming class of Labour MPs thanks to his careful management of selections.
Many frontbenchers complain that this group, who are all drawn from the party’s right and backed Liz Kendall’s ultra-Blairite bid for leadership, wield more power and influence over Labour’s direction than its nominal leader. Now, some shadow cabinet ministers have vowed to play a similarly long game of waiting until they can use the power and resources of a government department to marginalise and take revenge on Labour’s overmighty advisers.
Starmer’s calculation is that the risks of apparent fiscal incontinence are greater than deepening the perception that he says one thing and does another. As a result, he has changed Labour’s policy at personal cost to himself and to a background of considerable rancour. Both he and his chief aides might yet live to regret that decision.