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Mandates are overrated — Keir Starmer just needs the win

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How much of a mandate for change does a new government need? Is it enough simply to have won an election or does it require more detailed permission for the tougher parts of its political programme? Will a couple of headline policies suffice? This is a question vexing Labour insiders as they plan their campaign.

There is less evidence that mandates trouble Keir Starmer himself. If there is one thing we have learnt about the Labour leader — aside from his being the son of a toolmaker — it is that he is not burdened even by recent history. He won the leadership as a unity candidate, essentially offering competent Corbynism. Four years on, he has purged his predecessor and is running for election on a programme that critics see as closer to competent Conservatism.

Expensive pledges are being scaled back, delayed or reduced to aspirations. Even the headline £28bn green investment plan is suffering death by a thousand briefings. Starmer, sensitive to criticism of flip-flopping, seems nervous of ditching the figure entirely, feeling that enough caveats have been added to give his party the budgetary wriggle room it needs. The reason is clear. Starmer sees his key role as reassuring voters and in offering as small a target as possible for Labour’s opponents.

There are good arguments for ditching the £28bn figure, but such caution worries those who fear Starmer is accepting Tory economic constraints when the country is crying out for change. Faint hearts, they say, will limit a Labour victory and reduce room for manoeuvre. Others cite the falling fortunes of left leaders such as Germany’s Olaf Scholz and Australia’s Anthony Albanese, whose low-key styles were once seen as a template. 

For these doubters, Starmer must secure a bigger mandate for change. The challenges around productivity, clean energy and spending are so great that Labour needs upfront public buy-in for what might be painful measures.

This talk is not restricted to Starmer’s critics. “Are we at a point where we can say what happens if we win, where we can say this is the great economic problem and this is how we are going to fix it? Have we built consent for that? I’m not sure,” says one supporter.

Such talk exasperates Starmer’s more hard-headed allies. In campaign meetings, some have argued that Labour has a big enough poll lead to afford one or two less popular policies. Strategists have been heard likening this to the leading horse in the Grand National slowing to take on weight before the finish. They remind colleagues of how an overconfident Theresa May blew up her election campaign by adding an unpopular policy on social care to the 2017 manifesto. Activists may dream of a West Wing world that rewards the party promising unpleasant trade-offs. Voters do not.

There are instances, such as major constitutional reform, where a specific mandate is useful (although supporters of electoral reform would say Britain’s electoral system means no party has a genuine mandate). A clear manifesto pledge carries legislative and political force. Were Starmer to press ahead with abolishing the House of Lords, for example, a clear mandate would help neuter parliamentary opposition.

But the argument that Labour needs a detailed mandate, while seductive, falls down. Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, have not hemmed themselves in on spending and taxation for their own amusement. The promise to tread carefully comes from voters making clear over three elections that they want those instincts kept in check. “Look at the economy. We can’t make promises about how we will divide up a pie that isn’t there,” says one ally.

Such caution really isn’t necessary. A winning Labour party taking office will have a mandate to govern differently. It will have the scope to do the type of things electors expect of Labour governments — be it on the NHS, industrial strategy, workers rights or state intervention. While insiders tend to focus on inputs and policies, voters worry more about outcomes. If the policy works, Labour will find that voters are OK with it.

As so often, Tony Blair is the model. Voters will be offered an aspirational manifesto with a handful of specific but limited promises such as breakfast clubs for primary school children. Those demanding Starmer — and on the other side the Conservative incumbent Rishi Sunak — seek a mandate for radical change are less concerned with public support than with pinning down their own leaders.

Starmer’s counter to the mandate argument is to cite his five missions — the guiding values he presents to voters. These overarching ambitions on growing and greening the economy, breaking down barriers to opportunity, future-proofing the NHS and making streets safe from crime offer all the political leeway he needs once in office. 

More detail on what the first year will look like is promised closer to the election. But there remains a lingering worry — one that emerges in private focus groups — that the lack of sharp policy definition reflects less campaign cunning than a lack of political clarity about what comes next.

Even so, if voters decide to make a change and pass on the keys to Number 10, they will expect the new government to get on with it. Electors know prime ministers often find it easier to explain later than to seek permission first. The win will be all the mandate Starmer feels he needs.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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