Circumstances change, but one stays the same – Labour still needs to win.

Once upon a time, Labour’s leaders could scatter spending commitments around like confetti. This fiscal incontinence peaked a few days before the 2019 general election when the shadow chancellor conjured a £58 billion spending commitment from thin air. This magic number, targeted at around three million women who had missed out on their pensions, did not appear in the Labour manifesto, and had not been costed. With the Tories 19 points ahead and cruising to a crushing landslide, I suppose John McDonnell thought he was in for a penny, in for a few extra billion pounds.

There’s a mythology around why Labour lost the 2019 election in such spectacular fashion. One theory is the overwhelming unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn with millions of voters in Red Wall seats. In this theory, Corbyn was a kind of electoral kryptonite in places such as Bolsover, Workington, and Don Valley. Well, yes that’s part of the answer, but let’s not forget he was unpopular in non-Red Wall seats too. Also, and far more salient, there was the strong sense that a party with zero fiscal responsibility would tank the economy.

If you think the recent climb-down from the £28 billion a year green spending pledge is something to do with climate change, think again. Nor is it a sign of a weakening of Starmer’s and Reeves’ commitment to protect the planet. It has everything to do with Labour’s imperative to appear financially competent. This is what will determine the election outcome.

The critics fall into broad camps. There are those who see this as a stick with which to beat Starmer. They are pursuing their forever war from the sidelines against Labour’s leadership because their entire political world-view is predicated on the idea that socialism is endlessly being betrayed by its leaders. Then there are those who believe, like David Blunkett, that the climbdown was quite the optical omnishambles, leaving the impression of disarray and retreat. There’s something in this. As a piece of spin doctoring, it left room for improvement. Labour will have to sharpen its act.

Then there are those who believe that the figure £28 billion was the perfectly-calibrated figure (not £27 billion or £29 billion, mark you) and should be stuck to regardless of objective economic circumstances, the looming recession, or Jeremy Hunt’s obvious intention to throw cash at swing voters. This is intransigence bordering on fetish, and fails to accept the scope and range of Labour’s policies on greening the economy, creating green jobs, and tackling the climate crisis. Anyway, in opposition, bandying around eye-watering amounts of cash is a meaningless exercise. The 2019 manifesto promised £250 billion on green policies, but it might as well have been £500 billion or fifty Gazillion because it was never going to happen.

However, the people most dismayed by Labour’s announcement are not Friends of the Earth, but Friends of the Tory Party. Conservative Central Office has a spring and summer of attacks on Labour’s spending plans lined up, with ever-more phantasmagorical assertions of how much a Labour government will tax your family. By removing the arbitrary £28 billion figure, the Tories will find it much harder to accuse Labour of dropping tax bombshells on the households of Hastings, Stevenage, or Wrexham.

The calculus for Labour’s strategists is what is worse – an accusation of flip-floppery or the charge of financial recklessness? For most voters, the capacity to change your mind when circumstances change is probably on balance preferable to tax, price, and mortgage hikes. Indeed, the inability to adapt old policies to new problems and modern concerns is one reason why voters rejected a Labour leadership in 2019 which hadn’t altered its collective minds on any issue since 1978.

The nearer the prospect of a Labour Government (and opinion poll leads in the twenties suggest this might be a serious prospect, despite the huge Tory majority), the more serious Labour must get. There must be no loose ends or hostages to fortune. Every policy that passes through the Clause V meeting, and onto the pages of the 2024 Labour manifesto, must be bomb-proof. It must make sense, add up, and appeal to people who voted Conservative in 2019. There can be no kelp on the bottom of the sailboat.

Labour is entering the most important period since 2010. The Tory attacks grow more desperate. The demonstrations targeting Labour Party offices and picketing of Labour candidates and MPs show that Labour is back as a party of power not protest. The attacks by the likes of George Monbiot suggest Labour is annoying all the right people for all the right reasons.

But the outcome of the next election is far from settled. The swing required for a Labour government majority of one is off the scale. Many Tories have given up, but the hardcore will fight to the last ditch, and can retreat back to the Moscow of their five-figure majorities. Starmer and Reeves are carefully carrying that famous Ming vase over the polished floor, and they are right to remove the banana skins in their path.


If you enjoyed this piece, check out the previous instalment of Paul on Politics, The Battle for the Don’t Knows.