Keir Starmer will obviously want to fight the coming year’s election promising change and enthusing voters with his bright ideas – but just how much will the public be expecting him to transform the UK? And how much is actually deliverable in one term when infrastructure and services are in such a parlous state?
Promising sunlit uplands and £350m a week for the NHS worked for the leave campaign in the Brexit referendum, appealing to hearts over heads. Boris Johnson also pulled off a campaign of blind optimism in 2019 promising 40 more hospitals and not to raise the rate of national insurance.
But after numerous scandals, a cost of living crisis, broken promises and two more prime ministers, the public mood feels more sceptical now. That is why wiser heads and old hands in Labour are painstakingly cautious about overpromising in the election manifesto.
They know there is not the money for huge injections into public services without busting self-imposed fiscal rules designed to make Labour look trustworthy with the economy.
And they are well aware, as detailed in the IPPR report, it will take more than one term to clear the backlog in the NHS, the court service, schools attainment, and other areas of public service such as Border Force and prison officers.
Like David Cameron in 2010, Labour’s rhetoric will be all about mending problems caused by the Tories, with only a modest array of big-spend offers to entice voters in areas from childcare to housebuilding.
The problem lies in whether voters will have realistic expectations about how quickly the UK’s difficulties can be fixed.
The language currently being used by the party is one of “turning the page” on 13 years of Tory misrule. It’s not quite starting from scratch, but one party insider says voters need to be left with the impression the Conservatives have razed public services to the ground and that the rebuilding will be a slow process. The message will also have to be hammered home by Labour that transformation is going to be attempted on a tight budget.
Labour’s big thinkers know the party will have to innovate and not shy away from reform, and probably put substantial money in as well if public services are to return to an adequate state in line with the demands of voters.
Some of the IPPR’s ideas for rebuilding public services are likely to be controversial, most strikingly the proposal for embracing artificial intelligence to save billions of pounds and retraining those whose jobs are made unnecessary as a result. This would probably prove difficult to stomach for many in the trade union movement and some in the party. Other ideas include shifting public spending from hospitals to prevention and community care.
Such proposals are unlikely to be big vote winners, but the goal is a reformed public sector that delivers for the long term. Some would say any wild overpromising would only become a problem for Labour fighting for a second term but other Labour strategists believe the party needs to start off with and keep a reputation for making credible promises.
The balancing act for Labour is striking a tone of hope and confidence, along with the promise of enough change to tempt voters to give them a chance – while not presenting themselves as miracle workers.