With the Labour leader pledging his “five bold missions will form the backbone of Labour’s election manifesto”, a team of IfG experts assess whether Starmer’s statement stacks up
1. Starmer’s growth pledge relies on luck as much as policy
Keir Starmer’s pledge to get the UK’s growth rate to the highest sustained level in the G7 – the group of seven largest advanced economies in the world – by the end of Labour’s first term is extremely ambitious. This mission is slightly ill-defined – what, in particular, does “sustained” mean? But any reasonable interpretation of this implies doing something that the UK has rarely, if ever, achieved in the past four decades.
There is a lot of scope for improvement though. The UK’s output per worker is below all the other G7 countries, except Japan, and output per hour worked in the UK is lower than in France, Germany and the US. But transforming the UK’s growth performance is likely to take time and one term in office does not give Starmer long. Previous Institute for Government research has highlighted the types of ambitious policies – for example on skills and transport – that could deliver higher growth in regions outside London and the South East (which Starmer emphasised would be a particular focus of this mission). But most of those policies are likely to pay off over decades rather than a few years.
In short, it is welcome that Starmer has an ambitious aim for economic growth, but he will be relying on luck as much as effective policy if he is to achieve this mission in less than five years.
Gemma Tetlow and Tom Pope
2. Clean energy provides Labour’s clearest signal of ambition
A zero-carbon electricity system by 2030, five years before the government’s aim, is the most clearly defined of Labour’s targets. Meeting it would be very tough – not least given the huge task of upgrading the UK’s outdated grid. But it makes sense as a strong signal. A Labour government would simultaneously need to massively expand electricity supply to support shifts in home heating and transportation (the core of net zero, as Lord Turner has put it, is to electrify almost everything as quickly as possible). It would therefore need to ensure the zero-carbon power target did not come at the expense of how quickly it aims to replace the use of gas and oil in other areas.
The mission’s wider framing – “create jobs, cut bills and boost energy security” – is closely aligned with what voters want. The party has already made its £28bn per year climate investment pledge, so the challenge now will be outlining a handful of policies that offer a clearer sense of how that money will be spent, and how it plans to actually deliver policies in tricky areas involving complex supply chains, like housing retrofit.
3. NHS reform is a laudable goal but a Starmer government may find tight budgets restrict its aims
Given the state of the NHS, it is unsurprising that Keir Starmer included the health service in his five missions. When stripping away the language, Labour seems to be focusing on: NHS reform; investment in research and development (R&D), with the aim of improving preventative health measures; and addressing health inequalities. All of these are worthy objectives for a new government, though the party needs to provide more detail on what exactly each of these steps will involve before it is possible to properly evaluate them.
There are, however, clues as to Labour’s intentions from other public announcements. On reform, Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, has previously discussed ending the GP partnership model and introducing some sort of self-referral process that would see patients bypass primary care entirely.
An increase in R&D investment would require more capital spending, partly addressing one of the most underfunded parts of the NHS budget over the last 25 years. The extent of this investment and its source is still open-ended, however, and Labour should also consider the need for capital spending in other areas such as estates maintenance, IT infrastructure or diagnostic equipment.
Streeting has often spoken about shifting to a preventative health approach, with the aim of reducing long-term demand for acute care. This again is a laudable goal, but is also one that might run into problems if Labour form a government.
Once in power, Starmer will discover that acute care monopolises attention within the NHS – and the media. He will find it hard to divert a tight NHS budget to preventative care if ambulances are queuing outside hospitals. The benefits of preventative care are also difficult to quantify and tend to accrue over many decades, both characteristics that mean Labour will struggle to convince the Treasury to invest in the area, especially in a constrained fiscal environment.
4. Labour’s approach to crime prevention must include wider criminal justice reforms
On crime, Starmer’s pledges include ‘reforming the police and justice system, to prevent crime, tackle violence against women, and stop criminals getting away without punishment’. A recent speech by Yvette Cooper at the IfG offers some idea as to how Labour would achieve these goals.
Labour plans to make the Home Office a more active player in the justice system, with interventions on workforce planning and standards, as well as plans to boost the declining numbers of arrests and convictions.
It plans to spend £360m to boost neighbourhood and community support officers, which have been severely cut since 2010, by 13,000. This could help reduce crime through ‘hotspot’ patrols while rebuilding declining trust following several high-profile scandals. Its plans to set new mandatory requirements on vetting and standards is a good start, but a more assertive approach could also spark concerns over the operational independence of the police, which Labour must tackle head on.
Cooper also highlighted shortcomings in the police’s ability to investigate fraud, the biggest crime type in England and Wales, but Starmer’s speech provided little detail on how his government would do this.
If Labour wants to increase convictions, it must involve the wider justice system. For example, increasing charges without investment in the courts will do little to improve waiting times or stymie victim attrition, given the huge backlogs facing the crown court in particular. It’s also not clear how prisons, already at capacity, can accommodate more people. This will also affect reoffending rates as the prisoner increase will make it harder to deliver rehabilitative activities.
Unless Labour addresses these system-wide problems, it is in danger of falling prey to the very same ‘sticking plaster’ solutions for which they criticise the current government.
5. Labour’s education policy is light on detail
There’s nothing in the education mission that anyone could object to – who would oppose breaking down barriers; raising standards; and preparing young people for work and life? But that’s the problem. Without any more detail it’s entirely anodyne. All we really know about Labour’s education policy is that they want to invest in childcare. It’s something shadow secretary of state Bridget Phillipson has talked about a lot, but we don’t even have any detail on this yet.
As for schools, colleges and universities, it’s a black box with lot of competing arguments to be resolved. Teacher unions would argue that in order to raise standards you need to remove the pressures on schools associated with things like school inspection and publication of exam results. Others – me included – would argue this would cause standards to fall. Plenty of Labour members would argue for abolishing tuition fees as a key way to break down barriers; others would argue that this could make places for poorer students harder to come by as universities would be forced to ration places more. Does child poverty count as a barrier to education? Is there going to be any attempt to reduce that?
Where do Labour stand on any of these issues? Hopefully the detailed “mission” will give us some clues.
Starmer's focus on long-term solutions should be welcomed
The Labour leader covered much ground in his speech but his central argument was that many of the challenges the UK faces – from achieving sustained growth to fixing the NHS – can only be addressed over long timeframe, and through fundamental reform. This has led to accusations that he does not have answers to the immediate problems facing the country, but the IfG believes this focus on long-term reform should be welcomed.
Government has been stuck in a cycle of short-term decision making for too long. Brexit and the pandemic have driven reactive and short-term policy making that continues today. Public services have been put through a continual cycle of crisis-cash-repeat that does nothing to improve the quality and timeliness of the public’s experience. Priority policy areas like industrial strategy have been subject to relentless policy and institutional change. And green industries have been inhibited by changes of direction – for example, over onshore wind – and the failure of politicians to make key decisions. The idea of organising government around a set of guiding, longer-term missions provides an opportunity for certainty, cross-sector partnership and sustained change.
But the nature of government itself will be critical to delivering on these missions. The “new approach to governing” Labour describes – drawing on some of IfG's own work – seeks to learn from the mistakes of government past and present, calling for “cross-cutting mission boards” to overcome departmental silos, a focus on real-world impact, and for citizens and experts to be more involved in the setting of the government’s plans. These are all noble aims but easier said than done, and Starmer is far from the first politician to articulate such goals.
If elected the Labour leader will need to make deep changes to the centre of government to make a reality of these missions and show a strong personal commitment to them in the face of heavy counterweights towards the more immediate.
And most of the hard choices are yet to be made. As colleagues have described above, detail on the missions is so far largely absent. Labour will soon need to settle on a stable team (a reshuffle is rumoured in May) to help build this detail. That details should include some numbers: the scale of reform Starmer appears to be proposing, for instance on the NHS, will require big investment but Labour has not yet said how it plans to fund these changes and the economic circumstances are hardly conducive to sustained long term investment.
Mission-driven government is the right approach and the long-term focus is welcome. But the difficult choices are yet to come.