February 23, 2023 - 1:00pm

Since the removal of Boris Johnson last summer, the Labour Party has enjoyed astronomically high poll ratings. Rishi Sunak has failed to reach even 30% in the polls, while Johnson never fell below that number. Keir Starmer is now leading a Labour Party that is commanding as high as 50% in recent polls, something that no Labour leader has ever achieved in a general election.

With a Conservative loss at the next election now being treated as a foregone conclusion, scrutiny is growing over what a Labour government under Starmer would actually do. When he stood for leader in 2020 he made ten pledges. Several of these have been broken, not least the promise that he would weaken the involvement of the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) in the selection of Labour candidates. He has instead manoeuvred the rules to strengthen them.

Today, he has cut his number of pledges down to five, and they are called ‘missions’ instead. A mission is less concrete than a pledge. It’s a goal, not a promise. All of the missions are worthy, and speak to the broad priorities of the British public — a strong economy, a working health service, low crime, and opportunity for children. 

In addition, Starmer has expressed the mission of making Britain a ‘clean energy superpower’, placing a Left-of-centre demand for action against climate change alongside a patriotic rallying cry. Britain won’t just rule the waves but the wind and sun, too.

Are these missions really sufficient to meet the challenges of today? For one thing, housing was absent. Given the role of Britain’s broken housing market in limiting opportunity and reproducing intergenerational inequalities, perhaps it falls under ‘Breaking down the barriers to opportunity’, but the scale of the housing crisis surely ought to have been a commitment on its own.

There were other elephants sitting in the room in Manchester. Starmer had little to say on immigration, in spite of recent polling from UnHerd which shows that a plurality of voters in all parties, including Labour, believes immigration levels are too high. Immigration has been the Cyanean Rocks of Labour leaders in recent years, and the party has yet to find its Jason.

Finally, Starmer’s missions contain elements of their own self-destruction. The Labour leader has become preoccupied with devolution, pledging in Manchester to bring people who are ‘affected’ by the issues he mentions into the decision-making process. For anyone with experience of local government in Britain, these words should be a source of horror. Local government attracts some of the worst elements of the NIMBYish anti-growth coalition. Devolving power is likely to make it harder, not easier, to achieve goals of greater opportunity and a growing economy.

Starmer’s love for devolution is also politically unwise. Local and national election voting is thermostatic. That is to say that when one party is in power nationally, it tends to lose seats in local government. Starmer will not be facing councils controlled by the current crop of Labour councillors. After a few years, many Labour councils will fall into the hands of opposition parties. Then, the Leader of the Opposition will be handing these very authorities additional powers, not to achieve his agenda, but to block them.

Starmer is speaking to some real frustrations in Britain after more than a decade of underinvestment, penny-pinching, and misdirection. But there is still work to be done in meeting the scale of the challenge and ensuring the tools are available for him to meet it.

Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.