Do Keir Starmer’s five missions stack up?

February 24, 2023

This week Keir Starmer announced ‘five bold missions for a better mission’. The missions themselves – centred on growth, clean energy, the NHS, crime and education – are hard to disagree with, but what is unexpectedly impressive is the detail which Labour has devoted to considering how to actually deliver these more effectively.

The real meat of Labour’s document comes not in the missions, but in the section modestly titled ‘A new approach to governing’. This contains a thoughtful and considered assessment of what actually impacts effective government delivery – and how it can be improved. While there is the odd platitude, such as ‘putting citizens centre-stage at the outset’, there is much more that is thought-provoking and meaningful. Real options on devolution, including meaningful delegation of local funds; replacing some Cabinet Committees with delivery boards (perhaps, though the document doesn’t say so, learning from the experience of COVID); discussion of transparency and reporting obligations; integrated funding; a focus on flexibility and innovation. There is a welcome emphasis on what works, further suggesting that Labour, if elected to government, will be open to working with the private sector to deliver its goals.

It is, frankly, surprising to see matters such as these dominating the briefing paper in what was billed as a major public facing announcement. If the Conservative 2019 manifesto was high on cake and low on recipe, this is the opposite. There is a question as to whether it is politically wise – his speech has been criticised, including by those on the left, as ‘bland’ and ‘boring’. But whether it is the best politics or not, it is undeniably welcome.

The basic truth is that Britain isn’t working as well as it used to. The NHS has more doctors, more nurses and more funding but is seeing fewer patients. The proportion of arrests that lead to someone being charged has fallen through the floor. We haven’t built a reservoir or a nuclear power station in a generation and, as Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves famously said, it can take up to 13 years to build an offshore windfarm. Depending on your political leanings, you might be inclined to point to different causes – a mountain of red-tape and regulation, an underpaid workforce, a lack of investment in skills, or any of a host of other candidates. What’s clear though is that changing this will not be simple – and will require serious thinking about how government actually achieves things. Though hedged about with caveats, the Five Missions document represents an important first step on that road.

The missions themselves are more underwhelming. It is hard to argue with the choice of topics, or with the – very brief – content of each. The language and tone are good: they speak to the aspirational centre-ground, not the radical left, and suggest a party that is proud of Britain and wants what normal people want. They are still a long way, however, from the ‘retail’ pledges of New Labour’s 1997 pledge card, which contained clear deliverables such as ‘Cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7 year-olds’ or ‘100,000 people off waiting lists’. We are still likely eighteen months from an election, and Starmer has said this is the start of a process, with more detail being rolled out across the coming weeks and months – so there is time to develop these.

Questions remain for Starmer. Two of the nation’s biggest challenges, housing and immigration, are notably absent. It will be hard for him to deliver the Growth mission without addressing the first. The missions, as they stand, do not address some of the big unanswered questions that will arise in an election campaign, such as what will Labour do about small boats, or tuition fees? And having abandoned a number of the pledges he made during the leadership contest, he is perpetually vulnerable to the charge of whether new pledges will be any different.

Nevertheless, the Five Missions represent a real opening look at how Labour hopes to govern. With public sector reform having been largely absent from the table – in both parties – for the last few years,  it makes a refreshing read. Pragmatism rather than ideology, results rather than pipe dreams, and a serious consideration of the nuts and bolts of how government can actually make things work better. It’s a solid foundation to build on.

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