The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer, both gave speeches in the New Year, illustrating their vision for governance. Sunak beat Starmer to the punch, giving his speech on Wednesday (January 4th) with Starmer undertaking his a day later on Thursday (January 5th). Coincidentally, both men gave their speeches in the same venue, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London.
In his speech, Sunak outlined five promises and asked the public to assess his leadership based on them. They are:
- To halve inflation
- Grow the economy
- Reduce debt
- Cut hospital waiting lists
- Stop migrant crossing.
- He also mooted the idea of compulsory maths teaching until the age of 18.
So far, these pledges seem fairly reasonable with the Prime Minister promising to address issues that are worrying many. No concrete plans were laid out, leading the opposition to label it as an empty speech. Some of the promises are also dubious. For example, inflation is already forecast to fall this year and inflation falling would not mean a reduction in the prices of food and other goods, merely the price of them rising at a slower rate. Britain’s economic growth is also the slowest amongst the G7 group of nations and as nothing was said on how the Prime Minister intends to ‘grow the economy’ or ‘reduce debt’, it is difficult to see how he will actually set about achieving this. It is likely that he won’t.
Increases in NHS funding have also been promised as well as ‘innovations’ in order to reduce patient waiting times. The ‘NHS crisis’ is multifactorial and includes increased winter demand due to seasonal infections along with COVID, staff shortages and an aging population (with all the health issues that entails). Promises of increased funding, as well as the governments’ softening attitude over negotiating nurses pay, are surely welcomed by the NHS. However, little concrete policy was offered on how Sunak intends to actually do this. Analysis by the BMA shows that the NHS has suffered a real-terms funding cut since 2010, with funding failing to keep up with demand. No policies were given by Sunak in his speech and he did not actually state how he plans to make up for over a decade of underfunding.
Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, gave his speech a day later promising ‘national renewal’. He attacked the government for ‘sticking plaster politics’ and promised that Labour would go beyond this with long-term reforms not only for the NHS but Britain’s entire political system. Controversially, Starmer decided to embrace the notorious slogan ‘Take Back Control’, used by the Leave campaign to great effect in 2016. Starmer indicated that Labour would work closely with the private sector and would not undertake mass nationalisations, saying that every policy would be fully accounted for and that his government would not ‘get out the big government chequebook’.
With his appropriation of ‘Take Back Control’ it is obvious that Starmer is seeking to tap into the vein mined by the Leave campaign so successfully; that many people in this country feel like they do not have a meaningful voice in decision making. Indeed, he explicitly states this in his speech, comparing the Leave vote in 2016 to the ‘yes’ vote for Scottish independence in 2014 and stating that they come from a similar root. Although like Sunak’s speech little tangible policy was actually proposed in the speech, decentralising power and decision making will be a keystone for Labour’s campaign in the next general election. We can already see some of this in effect, with Labour having pledged to abolish the House of Lords if they get into power.
Labour has a somewhat unfair reputation for economic mismanagement, mostly due to the financial crash of 2008 occurring during Gordon Brown’s premiership. The calamitous defeat in 2019, under Jeremy Corbyn, is undoubtedly on the minds of Starmer and his team and they are evidently seeking a way to distance themselves from Corbyn’s time as leader. So-called Corbynism had a commitment to a muscular welfare state and anti-austerity public spending, including the nationalisation of essential utilities. Starmer’s comments about the ‘big government chequebook’ and the seeming willingness to work with private interests is a repudiation of ‘Corbynist’ economics, hearkening back to Tony Blair’s leadership. Starmer emphasised how the party had changed from the Corbyn era at the beginning of his speech. He will now have to hope that the voting public is convinced.