On the surface, Labour’s £28 billion green pledge appears to be the soft underbelly of Starmerism. Even when it was announced in 2021, with the Labour Party traversing the narrowest of pathways on fiscal policy, eyebrows were raised by this notably noncomformist borrowing commitment.
Of course, the policy as announced a couple of years ago at Labour Party conference is already dead. Newly accounting for Conservative criticism (and recent interest rate hikes), Rachel Reeves toured the media studios in June 2023 to inform the public that the party would now “ramp up” to £28 billion a year after 2027, i.e. in the second half of a Labour term.
It is arguably a result of the failure of Reeves’ rearguard action, here, that SW1 still speculates as to the future of the so-called Green Prosperity Plan (GPP). Indeed, it is no secret that senior Labour figures want the headline £28 billion figure more comprehensively ditched — if the incessant hum of anonymous media briefings is anything to go by, at least.
But slowly these divisions have burst into the public realm — with matters likely brought to a head by the internal Labour deadline of 8 February for a draft manifesto.
Compare and contrast the approaches of shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and leader Keir Starmer, for instance. Reeves, the self-styled “iron chancellor”, refuses to let the words “twenty”, “eight” or “billion” leave her lips — even when the topic is broached by Sky News’ Beth Rigby a full ten times.
Starmer, however, takes little prompting. Speaking to Times Radio in an interview released today, the Labour leader said of the 28 billion, which he wilfully referenced: “That investment is desperately needed for [Labour’s climate] mission”.
“Of course, what we’ve said as we’ve got closer to the operationalisation of this is that’ll have to be ramped up, the money will have to be ramped up, the 28 billion, etc. And everything is, of course, subject to our fiscal rules”, he added.
This genuine public divide between Reeves and Starmer, once an indomitable duopoly, is underpinned by reports of private splits on the £28 billion that encompass a series of other senior Labour figures. For example, shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband, the man credited/blamed (delete as appropriate) for putting the policy on the agenda, is cited as its chief supporter. But Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary; Pat McFadden, the shadow Cabinet Office minister; Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign chief; and shadow Treasury minister, Spencer Livermore are all reported to be privately lobbying Starmer to do away with the proposal.
Such splits notwithstanding, there is an argument to say that the incessant chatter surrounding the £28 billion pledge is actually far more revealing of the Conservative Party’s electoral strategy than a Starmer administration’s future industrial strategy.
Indeed, it is no secret that the £28 billion features centrally in the Conservative Party’s pre-election messaging on the dangers of a Labour government. Why? Because they calculate that the party’s messaging on a rigid fiscal framework — spearheaded skilfully by shadow chancellor Reeves — is so overbearing that it only takes one slip-up, one nonconformist breach to undermine all the party’s work.
And so, following the recurrent Conservative relaunches that characterised the final few months of 2023, Rishi Sunak appears to have settled with the “stick with the plan, don’t let Labour ruin it” approach. Featuring in this strategic framework, Labour’s £28 billion green pledge — the apparent epitome of Starmerite peril — is lambasted weekly at prime minister’s questions as Sunak’s default response.
Last week, the prime minister castigated Labour’s planned “£28 billion green spending spree” funded by “£28 billion of tax rises”; the week before that, again unprompted, he said Starmer’s “£28 billion tax grab will take Britain back to square one”; and, in the week before that — (in response to the opening question from an SNP MP) — Sunak said the government’s progress would be “reversed by the Labour party’s plan to saddle [families] with £28 billion of tax rises”.
In the 1992 general election, the then-Conservative prime minister informed wavering voters that Labour’s tax bombshell would cost £1,250 per person to great effect. The £28 billion pledge, if retained all the way up to an election, could see a similarly arbitrary per-person figure conjured up by CCHQ schemers. That, in essence, is why the Labour’s strategy team, headed by McFadden and McSweeney, fret over the figure.
As such, there is a strong prima facie case for ditching the £28 billion tagline: the move would deprive Conservative strategists of their favourite attack line and force them, potentially, to once more reframe their strategy.
But would this hypothetical scenario — apparently guiding the GPP’s sceptics — really come to pass? If Starmer dropped any references to the headline “£28 billion” figure would the increasingly determined Conservatives, who have stumbled across something resembling message discipline, down their pitchforks and rework their electoral strategy entire? That, it would seem, is seriously unlikely.
In fact, what seems rather more possible in this eventuality is that the Conservatives would ratchet up their attacks on Labour’s green energy proposals more broadly — sensing weakness and taking aim at other elements of Starmer’s electoral offering.
The £28 billion, simply put, is already baked into the Conservative Party’s plans, any forthcoming climate climbdown from Starmer notwithstanding. They will continue to quote the figure — which, remember, has featured in Labour’s policy programme for over two years — as they locate some other target, such as the party’s plan to achieve clean power by 2030.
Furthermore, one clear consequence of a U-turn on the “£28 billion” figure would be that it further exposes Starmer to attacks that he is tetchy and brittle, unable to withstand criticism — even when it emanates from a party 20 points behind him in the polls.
In this way, research from focus groups and polling repeatedly suggests that Starmer is most exposed — not as fiscal rules-confounding, eco-zealot — but as a leader, frankly, who stands for very little. Sir Keir has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to fiscal prudency with strategically sound U-turns on tuition fees and the two-child benefit cap. Indeed, such barnacle-scraping is nothing less than Starmer’s best trick as he, at once, emphasises the Conservatives’ emptying of Conservative coffers and signals Labour’s loyalty to a ruthless fiscal regime.
On the GPP, however, the Labour leader risks not just scraping off the barnacles — but hollowing out the ship beneath.
Simply put, ditching the £28 billion proposal could land the Labour Party in the worst of all worlds: the Conservatives would continue to attack Starmer’s clean energy commitments while lampooning him as a meandering leader, who stands for little regardless. After all, the only Conservative attack line that features higher than “Keir Starmer’s plan is dangerous” is “Keir Starmer doesn’t have a plan”.
Electorally, as well, losing the £28 billion pledge could bolster the view that Labour, helmed by a cautious leader, won’t bring change. It is a fact that could contribute to a gruelling campaign, characterised by a lack of enthusiasm, which would see Starmer miss out on the manifest electoral windfall due to an opposition party in a “change election”.
With the £28 billion pledge speculation, it would seem that “Starmerism” has arrived at a crossroads moment. Ultimately, a Labour U-turn on the £28 billion would likely spell more contortions to come as the party, (1), continues to respond to increasingly ruthless Conservative attacks with policy changes; and, (2), pursues the natural logic of its climate climate down and checks its ambition in other areas.
But if Starmer holds firm on the £28 billion and ceases any overbearing concessions to Conservative criticism, it would signal a newfound intent — ending the humming din of media briefings and allowing the party, simply, to move on.
In the end, Sir Keir appears to have resolved to keep the £28 billion — if his recent Times Radio interview is anything to go by. But can he convince the rest of his party to do the same?
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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