General Election 2024

Election panel: Should Labour be more ambitious?

Our panel of experts on whether the Labour manifesto goes far enough

June 13, 2024
Image: PA Images / Alamy
Image: PA Images / Alamy

It’s election season. Prospect has invited writers and experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues.

Yesterday, we asked our panellists whether the Green party was heading for a surge. Today, we asked them about Defence Secretary Grant Shapps’s comment that the Tories are fighting off a Labour “supermajority”. Is that realistic? And, as Labour launches its manifesto, should it be aiming higher with its plans for government? 

Emily Lawford: Is Labour being ambitious enough to get Grant Shapps’s threatened supermajority?

Matthew Lesh: It’s surely Labour’s lack of ambition—that is, avoiding policies that are excessively offensive to anyone—which is leading it down the path towards a supermajority. The contrast with 2019 could not be clearer. Corbyn proposed a bunch of radical policies, some of them even individually popular, but overall felt unaffordable and extreme. Now, Labour is avoiding giving anyone a reason to vote any other way. Perhaps it would be different if Sunak was viewed as competent, or full of new ideas, and therefore Labour needed to excite. Right now considering the Tory implosion all they need to do is look a little better. The interesting question is how quickly this all falls apart, what happens when a “change” slogan isn’t enough. But that’s an issue for after the election, for now, being unambitious is precisely the way to get a supermajority.

Zoë Grünewald: I agree with this to an extent. The only concern is there may be a significant number of uninspired progressive voters who were prepared to hold their nose and vote Labour to get the Tories out, but might now think there is space for them to vote Green/Lib Dem/SNP/spoil their ballot, or not vote at all. Whether that group is large enough to substantially reduce their majority—probably not. But the danger with everyone saying  “Labour is going to get a super majority” is that it doesn’t mobilise voters to go out and vote. They think its a done deal and what they do will make no difference.

Philip Collins: A curmudgeonly observation. It shows how strangely fixated is the British political class on the shinier, better groomed, altogether bigger politics of the USA that Grant Shapps used a term that has no meaning in British politics. He just meant it might be big.

Zoë Grünewald: I think Labour is in danger of isolating its core vote with its lack of progressiveness. Lots of people felt like they just had to get rid of the Tories. Now they just feel uninspired by the whole thing.

Matthew d’Ancona: If the supermajority Shapps envisages is a realistic prospect, it has much less to do with enthusiasm for Labour’s “missions” than with the accumulation of electoral disgust with the Tories. To an almost Zen extent, Starmer has avoided saying or doing anything that might quicken the pulse—sticking to an absolutely rigorous reassurance strategy. More than any opposition leader in living memory, he is depending upon the unity of the nation around frustration with the incumbents. The risk, of course, is that disenchantment with the Conservatives will be replaced instantly on 5th July with overwhelming expectations of the new government. Reticence works only on this side of polling day. If he gets a decent majority—let alone the Marvel Universe-style supermajority of Tory foreboding—the public will (quite rightly) expect him to do big and ambitious things with it. The mood of exasperation that is presently his best friend could rapidly become his worst enemy.

Philip Collins: I do agree that reassurance will work all the way up to polling day. It’s simply not true, in a two-horse race, that you need to do anything more than beat the lame horse next to you. All the sage commentary about inspiration is simply wrong, up to that point. But  it matters a lot immediately afterwards. The terrible defeat of 2019, the internal party clean up and Covid have all contributed to the relative lack of policy. It will matter.

Peter Hitchens: I still think we should be very cautious about poll figures. Is anyone looking at the raw data before media organisations “arrange” it? How are samples obtained in the internet age? How many refuse to answer in various ways?  I’m not saying Labour won’t win a huge majority. It might. Anti-social media, for what that is worth, seethes with angry voices claiming to be ex-Tories so enraged by their party that they actively desire a Labour government, or at least don’t care if they enable one. But this is the sort of self-harming irrationality you get at byelections, precisely because everyone knows it will make no real difference. I really don’t think Starmer has performed especially well, or that Sunak has performed especially badly. The polls don’t bear any relation to events. But if the polls are true, Labour’s lack of boldness has a lot to do with them. The Campbell–Mandelson view in 1997 was that they would be wise to keep their most important plans secret so as not to scare anyone. I expect they are doing the same this time.

Philip Collins: I think it’s worse than that. I don’t think there is a secret plan.

Moya Lothian-McLean: I think everyone else has said the main points but it really is telling to what extent the language of the North American electoral system is mapped onto Britain wholesale! Like an ill-fitting suit politicians and media exist on wearing regardless of the clear need to tailor.

Peter Kellner: Here’s Labour’s dilemma in concrete terms. Every party must choose where to target limited resources. Grant Shapps’s own seat is plainly one that Labour must win. It needs a 10.5 per cent swing to capture Welwyn Hatfield. But if the polls are anywhere near right, Labour should win the seat anyway. So, should it send its workers down the road to Hertsmere, which Labour would win on a 22 per cent swing? This would certainly demonstrate ambition. Maybe Labour would come close anyway, without a special effort, while strong local campaigning might turn narrow defeat into a possible gain. Yet this would surely be a tactical mistake. Labour needs to concentrate on the seats it must win in order to win a secure majority. Given the fact that there will be local variations, that means targeting the seats that need a swing of up to something like 18 per cent. It must not divert resources from seats that Labour must win to those that would simply add an extra red cherry to an already well-adorned cake. Anyone wanting Keir Starmer to be prime minister should condemn this as an unforgiveable act of hubris.

As for the wider issue—Labour's ambition for the country, rather than for maximising its number of MPs—a more grandiose manifesto would look ridiculous when the economy is weak and public finances are in terrible shape. On a scale from 0 (blood, toil, tears and sweat) to 10 (things can only get better), best just now not to go higher than 3. Underpromise and overdeliver is a cliche, but still wise advice. Big long-term changes will need tough early measures. Starmer is right to maximise his room for manoeuvre once he is in Downing Street.

Frances Ryan: I can buy the “don’t rock the boat” philosophy to a certain degree: Starmer simply needs to get through the door. But a tactic of under-promising has reached the point where even policies that are slam dunks are being ignored by the leadership. Few things show that more than the two-child benefit limit. Economists and thinktanks overwhelmingly agree that scrapping it is the most efficient and effective way to pull large numbers of children out of poverty (for barely £2bn) and yet Starmer won’t sign up to it. It looks performative at this point, as if he’s more keen to seem fiscally responsible than to actually make decisions that are fiscally—or morally—sound.

Tim Bale: If I hear “supermajority” one more time, I will scream: totally meaningless in the UK context! As for “ambitious”, I've no doubt Labour is that—what self-styled progressive party isn't, at least in its heart of hearts? But for Keir Starmer, it’s always first things first. It’s cold out there at the moment, so why expose more than an inch or two of bare flesh when you have absolutely no need to in order to win the contest you’re currently fighting? And anyway, there are more than enough dogs which don’t bark on virtually every page of the manifesto released today to give a putative Labour government plenty of bite once that contest’s over.