Sir Keir Starmer’s credibility has been jeopardized by his decision to abandon his flagship green policy, according to political commentator Andrew Rawnsley.
I can tell when a promise is no longer valid, and that is the case now. The Labour party’s plan for promoting environmental stability is a thing of the past. It has ceased to exist, passed away, and departed from this world. It is now an obsolete pledge, just like the Norwegian Blue in Monty Python’s comedic sketch about a dead parrot.
The abandonment of the commitment to invest £28bn a year to accelerate the transition to a carbon-free economy is not a routine political volte-face. This was Sir Keir Starmer’s signature pledge, one launched with tremendous fanfare as his flagship policy in 2021. There has not been a larger, more contentious or more excruciating U-turn during his time as Labour leader.
The green prosperity plan, introduced by Labour, was a forward-thinking proposal for significant change. It served as Sir Keir’s response to criticism that he lacks a unique and motivating message for the nation. The plan was a central component of Labour’s efforts to enhance the underwhelming state of the British economy, modeled after Joe Biden’s “green new deal” which aims to stimulate growth. This plan garnered support from both trade unions and the business community due to its aim of generating numerous skilled jobs and positioning Britain as a leader in green technology on a global scale.
The plan had the extra advantage of being well-liked. According to a recent poll by More in Common, participants ranked the plan as one of their top choices to be included in the Labour manifesto. However, Sir Keir has now abandoned his own main proposal.
The leader of the Labour party may disagree with my characterization by stating that certain aspects of the plan, such as the establishment of a state-owned energy company and a fund for decarbonizing heavy industry, are still being retained. However, it cannot be denied that the amount of investment in green energy, homes, and jobs that Labour is now committing to has significantly decreased to about one-sixth of the original proposal. The additional funding, above the meager plans already in place by the Conservative party, has been reduced to less than £5bn annually. This amount is insignificant compared to the threat posed by the climate crisis and the potential economic benefits of transitioning to green energy. It is also minuscule in comparison to the government’s annual spending of over £1 trillion and borrowing of over £75bn to address energy bills.
There was a clear reason behind the sudden retreat of those involved in this situation. With an election on the horizon, the Tories, lacking a strong track record of their own, aimed to use it as a referendum on Labour’s economic competence. Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt had been using the proposed £28bn as a weapon, claiming that a Labour government would result in more borrowing or higher taxes, or both. However, it was uncertain whether this attack would have any impact, especially considering the Tories’ poor financial history. Despite not gaining much support for Labour, it still raised concerns among key figures in the party. One of these figures was Morgan McSweeney, the campaign director, who regularly warned the shadow cabinet not to become complacent because of Labour’s lead in the polls, as it could easily disappear. He had long advocated for getting rid of the £28bn plan. This sentiment was shared by Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, who had initially announced the number but had since come to see it as a liability. Another key player was Pat McFadden, previously second-in-command on the shadow Treasury team and now national campaign coordinator. He seemed to embody PG Wodehouse’s saying that it’s easy to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine. In internal discussions about the party’s chances in the election, Mr McFadden would often remind his colleagues that “we usually lose.” These are the main characters in what could be called “Team Take No Chances.” They refused to gamble by campaigning on a promise of increased green spending, which some referred to as “the albatross.”
Team Hope ‘n’ Change was resistant to them, believing that excessive caution can be just as risky if it fails to convince voters that a Labour government will bring about positive change in their lives. Ed Miliband, a fervent advocate for the green industrial revolution within the shadow cabinet, was the most prominent member of this group in the fight. Despite his spirited efforts, he was unable to successfully defend the plan in internal debates.
For a long time, things were left unresolved because Sir Keir hesitated to take a stance. Some members of the Labour party believe that the prolonged period of uncertainty regarding the green pledge was due to their leader’s indecisiveness and slow decision-making. They criticize him for being too focused on technicalities and bureaucratic processes. However, what they fail to see is the personal struggle for influence over the leader. On one side, there was Ms Reeves, who prided herself on being the protector of Labour’s economic credibility, and Mr McSweeney, the most influential member of Sir Keir’s team and the mastermind behind his successful bid for leadership. On the other side, there was Mr Miliband, whom Sir Keir has known for a long time and with whom he shares a close proximity in London. The Labour leader was deeply invested in the prosperity plan, as reported by one member of the shadow cabinet. He was personally invested in the goal of making Britain a leading country in the green movement, and this was evident in his interview with the Observer just before the 2022 Labour conference, where he made it a central theme of his speech to delegates. Despite this, he continued to advocate for the £28bn budget as necessary in an interview last week, only to announce its abandonment just 72 hours later. He described the budget as “effectively being stood down,” using a convoluted phrase that hinted at his struggle to make the decision.
I believe he foresaw the anger brewing among environmental activists and the ridicule he is facing from the conservative side. The Conservative party is already using this to support their argument that he is a inconsistent politician without genuine beliefs, willing to say anything for power, which is the most damaging accusation against the leader of the Labour party. The Tories and their media allies will not support his excuse for changing his stance, which is that their mismanagement of the economy made his original plan unfeasible. This retreat will also not achieve its intended goal of silencing right-wing attacks. The Tories will continue to assert, as they always do, that there are “spending gaps” and “hidden tax surprises” in the Labour party’s proposals.
Sir Keir’s promise of consistency and decisiveness in his leadership of the government is now being questioned due to the sudden abandonment of a major commitment. The goal to achieve clean energy by 2030 is now appearing uncertain, creating a significant setback for the party’s growth plans. The Conservative leader is celebrating the failure of this promise, while there is also a risk of losing the support of voters who were initially drawn to the party’s focus on promoting a green economy.
The current conflict has revealed a major disagreement within the party’s leadership. Some members believe it is crucial for Labour to take a cautious approach, while others fear that being too fearful of losing votes could actually be harmful. This division will likely continue once they are in power. Unfortunately, this ongoing issue does not bode well for how Labour will handle difficult decisions and challenges when they are in government.
Only a month earlier, Sir Keir had insisted that he would not back down from his now failed plan and had stated that he was eager to defend it against attacks from the Tory party. However, he may end up regretting avoiding that battle and instead opting to retreat.