The Week

The Week 13 October 2023

Charlotte Pickles

This week was Labour Party Conference, and Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet will have left Liverpool feeling it was a job well done. The main speeches were well crafted and delivered, the fringe packed, and delegates upbeat. But, as our Director of Policy, Simon Kaye, asked last week of Conservative Party Conference, what did we actually learn about Labour's policy platform?

An end to Westminster power hoarding?

It was telling that one of the few themes trailed ahead of Starmer's speech pitching for power was focused on how he would let that power go. A Labour government, we were told, would devolve money and control to towns and cities, expand the combined authority model, and empower communities.

Which sounded promising (if largely consistent with the Government's current approach), but, and this applies to a lot of what he heard in Liverpool, Starmer's speech lacked any specifics on how a Labour government would achieve this, saying only: “And if we want to challenge the hoarding of potential in our economy then we must win the war against the hoarders in Westminster. Give power back and put communities in control.”

The Shadow levelling up secretary's speech was similarly big on vision, lacking on detail: “Building a strong community doesn’t mean making everywhere look the same. It means real choices put in people’s hands. Giving powers to our elected local leaders — the people who know their communities best. New devolved powers on skills, employment support, transport, and of course, new housing.”

Don't worry, we have some ideas on how to ensure Whitehall lets go, and will be sharing them very soon!

Fiscal prudence and curbing Whitehall's consultancy spend

Rachel Reeves' speech was, as expected, strong on fiscal prudence (“a Labour government will not waiver from iron-clad fiscal rules…”; “Responsibility must always come first…”).

A Labour government will legislate for a 'Charter for Budget Responsibility', guaranteeing that “significant and permanent tax and spending changes” will be subject to OBR analysis. Excluding the Truss blip, that's pretty much what the OBR was set up for, and we haven't had a definition of “significant”, but as a signal of Labour spending constraint you can see the Shadow Chancellor's rationale.

We also heard they will fast track planning applications for critical infrastructure, set up a National Wealth Fund to leverage private investment, review what went wrong with HS2, and “examine, line by line, every ongoing major capital project”. Those last two are important — it is shocking how bad Whitehall is at managing and delivering major projects (just 26 of 232 projects are rated green in the Government's Major Projects Portfolio) and vital that an incoming government gets a grip.

Also on the subject of Whitehall capability, Reeves promised to half the spend on government consultancy over the course of the Parliament. Acknowledging that consultants can play “an important role”, she said, “If a government department wants to bring in consultants, they must demonstrate the value for money case. And if they cannot, then that request will be denied”.

This is an area of spend that previous governments have also pledged to curb (Maude, 2011Agnew, 2021), and failed. Labour will have to decide whether it is willing to address the capability and capacity shortcomings that have often driven the need for external support — if not, given the complex challenges facing the public sector, the Shadow Chancellor is unlikely to meet her target.

Reforming the NHS?

The Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was characteristically robust in his calls for reforming the NHS — at a Reform event at conference he joked that his comms team were extremely enthusiastic about him sitting in front of a banner saying 'Reform'! He told our standing-room-only audience:

“Reform in the National Health Service is absolutely essential if we’re going to have an NHS there for us when we need it for the next 75 years. That is built around an approach to health and social care that is about shifting from an excessive focus on acute hospitals into primary care, community services and social care. Really providing support to people where they are, getting there faster, being there for them at home.”

Amen. Yet the big announcement was an extra £1.5 billion to help clear the elective backlog (today it is reported that NHS England has asked for a further £1 billion from HMT to plug the financial hole caused by the doctors' strikes and continue to work on the still growing backlog). More money into the acutes will make shifting the focus to the community harder.

Labour also pledged an extra £170 million “fit for the future fund” to replace old CT and MRI scanners. A good thing, but, again, it needs to be part of a package driving the reforms that Streeting has so well articulated — and on this we're still awaiting the detail.