By Dani Garavelli

WITH the UK helter-skeltering towards oblivion, what voters crave is a route map out of the mess we’re in: someone - ANYONE - with a clear-eyed vision for the future.

Instead, as the General Election approaches, what they are confronted with are parties too consumed with their own internal hand-wringing to come up with and stick to a coherent plan.

Last week - on the day it emerged global warming had, for the first time, exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius across a 12-month period - Keir Starmer reneged on Labour’s one big, bold policy: £28bn a year on green investment.

The original pledge - announced by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves - had a dual purpose: to move towards net zero, and drive growth, through the manufacture of electric vehicle batteries, offshore wind turbines and home insulation.

Now the spending and ambition have been slashed in a display of financial prudence and adherence to fiscal rules of the party’s own devising. Days after promising to stand firm against all comers, Starmer folded like a deckchair. Not so much Iron Lady as Origami Man. If he cannot hold his nerve with a 20-plus% lead in the polls, what principles will he shed when his party’s back is against the wall?

Starmer said it was all the Tories’ fault for crashing the economy; and, paradoxically, that the revised investment figure of £4.7bn extra spending a year would be enough to deliver much of its existing plan. But the clear blue line between Labour and Conservative on climate change has splodged; and, once again, Starmer looks weak and mission-less.

His U-turn came in the face of “borrowing bombshell” jibes from Rishi Sunak and the Daily Mail (it was ever thus), but also as a result of internal splits. Increasingly, the Shadow Cabinet’s capacity for policy-making appears to be stymied by the ultra-cautious tendencies of key back-room figures and advisers, such as campaign director Morgan McSweeney and campaign coordinator Pat McFadden.

They may think they are helping, but where’s the coherence? Where’s the united front? And, if there is so much confusion and disarray, what are the first 100 days in government going to look like?



Keir Starmer with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves


Contrast this with the mid-1990s when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were busy building New Labour. There were those on the left who abhorred the shift towards “neo-liberalism”, and there were arguments a-plenty over policies such as joining the Euro and the creation of the Scottish Parliament.

But no-one could deny they had a vision, a plan to make the party both electable AND progressive. As former spin doctor Alistair Campbell put it, they offered “reassurance alongside the promise of radical change.” Hence the 1997 landslide and the widespread mood of optimism.

Under Starmer, Labour is focusing on the “reassurance” at the expense of the “radical change”. But it is doing so against a different financial backdrop. Heading into the 1997 election, the economy had enjoyed a period of sustained growth; now it is tanking. It is far from “reassuring” to be offered more of the same, fiscally or on climate change. Or to be told the economy is so irredeemably screwed, the party has scrapped the one plan it had to revitalise it.

If Labour wins this big this time round - and I hope it does - it will not be because voters have been calmed or inspired, but because the prospect of another Tory government is so much worse.

Talking of which, Rishi Sunak made a holy show of himself last week, accepting a £1,000 wager over whether deportation flights to Rwanda would take off this side of the General Election. Oddly, the objections focused on the offensiveness of betting such a large sum during a cost-of-living crisis rather than on the offensiveness of reducing the fate of asylum seekers to a sporting event. Maybe that’s because the Rwanda policy has been a game from the start; we have lost the capacity to be shocked by it.


PM Rishi Sunak

PM Rishi Sunak


Rwanda - like Brexit before it - is a fable Labour would do well to learn from, the moral: “Making policy concessions to buy off doubters/dissenters never ends well.” In both instances, internal considerations were prioritised over the interests of the country. With Brexit, the worst repercussions were felt by voters; with Rwanda, by the party itself.

Who could have foreseen removal to an unsafe jurisdiction would be ruled unlawful? Or that Sunak’s watered-down alternative would be rejected by the very factions he was trying to appease?

Or that the whole affair would heighten the right-wing backlash against the UK’s membership of the European Convention of Human Rights? Well, anyone willing to look beyond short-term expediency to long-term consequences; but that appears to be too much to ask these days.

And so Rwanda has gone on sucking up all the oxygen that could have been expended on the NHS or climate change, while the divisions deepen and the fissures multiply. Last week the “five families” - a loose coalition of right-wing factions - expanded to six, with the launch of Liz Truss’s PopCons. The PopCons believe in lower tax, stricter immigration rules and protecting free speech from “woke culture”. They are less interested in the current Prime Minister than in the leader of the future Opposition.


Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg during the launch of the Popular Conservatism movement at the Emmanuel Centre in central London, in a bid to rally right-wing Tory MPs ahead of a general election this year. Picture date: Tuesday February 6, 2024. PA Photo. See PA

Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg during the launch of the Popular Conservatism movement at the Emmanuel Centre in central London, in a bid to rally right-wing Tory MPs ahead of a general election this year

Factionalism is destabilising the Scottish government, too. To understand the degree of chaos you only have to look at the resignation of Health Secretary Michael Matheson shortly before he was due to announce a rise in the alcohol minimum unit price. This bad timing would have been avoided if Humza Yousaf had only dealt with the Matheson scandal when it broke three months ago.

He didn’t, though the furore was a distraction from day-to-day government, because Matheson was an ally; and Yousaf needs all the allies he can get.

The SNP had hoped the defections to Alba would be a blood-letting. But the tensions persisted and, once Nicola Sturgeon had gone, the faux harmony could no longer be sustained. In the wake of Matheson’s departure, Yousaf has appointed another ally, Neil Gray to the role, while leaving leadership rival Kate Forbes on the backbenches. For all her socially conservative views, Forbes is a formidable politician and not someone you’d want outside the tent pissing in.


Kate Forbes MSP

Kate Forbes MSP


So now the SNP has the worst of both worlds: Alba undermining it from a distance and the centre-right Forbes/Fergus Ewing camp burrowing away from within. Most recently, Ewing demanded the unredacted publication of James Hamilton’s report into whether Nicola Sturgeon breached the ministerial code.- a move which revives the Alex Salmond controversy, just as it was beginning to fade, and plays directly into the hands of conspiracy theorists.

The rights and wrongs of the Hamilton report redactions aside, if I were an SNP MSP who believed my party was best-placed to deliver for the Scottish public, I would not choose this moment to rabble-rouse.

I’m not suggesting that Labour are as bad as the Tories, or that the SNP are “at it”, or that all our elected representatives are in it for themselves, or any of those blanket insults which sully the political debate. Just that those who are in the thick of it can become so embroiled in infighting and ideological nit-picking, they lose sight of the bigger picture.

Of course, policy direction must be debated. But how can you tackle the most important issues: child poverty, the NHS, climate change if your energy is being drained by internal machinations? How can you drive forward meaningful change, if you are always trying to second-guess the electorate?

Whenever Sunak calls it, there’s still a way to go until the General Election: ime enough for Labour and the SNP to refocus; but also time enough for further unforced errors.