Probably in October-December 2024, Labour will win the general election with a comfortable majority. They (you) will be able to change our country in countless significant ways. So this article sets out some personal hopes for what I hope the next government will achieve; trade-offs it should be prepared to make; and some sense of how its performance might be assessed.
1. Avoid major disasters and general clownery. The UK is in dire need of a period of continuous real earnings growth and boring politics, without major crises. We have had the financial crisis, Brexit, Covid-19, the energy/inflation crisis and all the related political turmoil. Some events are of course global, but even then it basically still is the responsibility of MPs to worry about these things on our behalf: there are things that can be done to protect the UK from the risks of future fossil fuel price shocks, pandemics and misaligned/malicious AI, for example. And in this century, every 5 years of increasing prosperity and knowledge while avoiding disastrous outcomes is an important step towards long-term flourishing. Meanwhile, avoiding general clownery is very much the job of MPs. To state the obvious, jokers should not be in the Cabinet, ministerial posts should not change hands every year, major tax rates should not yo-yo, and Prime Ministers should avoid doing things like accidentally leaving the EU. Even if not every policy choice is universally popular, I think the public will reward Labour for a term spent beavering away on delivering change rather than ugly political fighting.
2. Remain serious about pro-growth policy. Beyond basic stability, there are active changes needed to support much-needed growth. I won’t repeat the Economy 2030 Inquiry’s book, but we can’t ignore (e.g.) planning policy, reliberalising goods trade with the EU, investing a lot in improving urban transport options beyond London, and being open to new technologies. For what it’s worth, I agree with the argument that the UK needs a lot more+bigger+newer homes and that a lot of the planning/consultation system is a disaster. Keir Starmer has said “we choose the builders, not the blockers” and that he’ll “bulldoze through barriers to British success”. Please do so!
3. Rescue the NHS. I won’t make the case for why the NHS needs rescuing, or attempt to say how exactly that should be done. But, one comment is simply that I think we should have better healthcare: we can see that this is what people in rich countries want to spend much of their extra prosperity on. Secondly, as a voter, I do expect Labour to noticeably improve the situation (e.g. with falling waiting lists) within even a few years and like many I will be disappointed if that doesn’t happen. So my advice here is to be mission-oriented, as Starmer says, and not let anything stand in the way of Labour’s mission to ‘get the NHS back on its feet’. If the Treasury complains about new costs, say “sorry, but we’re doing this”; if detractors say public health measures are too nanny-state, say “sorry, but we’re doing this”, and so on until public satisfaction recovers.
4. Substantially improve animal welfare. In the UK we breed/kill 1 billion chickens a year for meat, with genetics so unnatural that the majority have difficulty walking. We are inflicting vast amounts of suffering in order to convert wheat, soy and corn into chicken meat. Similarly, pig, egg, dairy and fish farming are largely repugnant. The British public do not support existing standards when they hear about them, but generally believe that it is the responsibility of the government to fix any problems. That means it is basically down to the Labour parliamentary party over the next decade to choose the acceptable level of farm animal suffering, and I implore them (you) to take this responsibility very seriously. Keir Starmer stopped eating meat on principle, and my personal ideal agenda would be very radical indeed. But the basic steps that the next government should take as a minimum are clear (having been already suggested by Defra): mandatory tiered welfare labelling for animal-based products (including imports); the end of the cage age; better chicken standards; and a ban on imported fur and foie gras. I don’t think that bolstering animal welfare laws is politically risky (politically if a strong line is taken on imports), and I think any impact on growth or hunger (see #6) would be absolutely negligible. Labour just needs to get on with it. I think the only big question is whether, for humane, climate, biodiversity, land use, pollution, pandemic and health reasons, Labour is also willing to explicitly or implicitly try to reduce meat consumption.
5. Cut emissions. Labour’s rhetoric on green policy naturally covers lowering bills and creating jobs. But (laudable as those goals are) Labour should primarily be judged here by actual, total changes in greenhouse gas emissions. The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have roughly halved between 1990 and 2024. But we need to get to at least a 68% cut by 2030 and a 77% cut by the mid-2030s. Every year, or even every quarter, we will know if Labour have us on course to achieve that, and the Climate Change Committee will surely do a good job of holding the government to account. Beyond energy production, I’ll be looking especially for an early rebalancing of gas versus electricity costs (if the current government has delayed this), the planned ending of new gas grid connections, firmness on sales mandates for EVs and heat pumps – and on rental standards, and a willingness to reduce agricultural emissions.
6. Cut deprivation through higher benefits. I can see why Labour don’t want to promise more generous working-age benefits (and higher taxes to pay for it) going into an election, even after opposing past welfare cuts. But the UK has a deprivation problem, with too many people going hungry, using food banks or in temporary/no accommodation. And the basic problem is that working-age benefits are inadequate for those who really rely on them, particularly when people’s housing costs and Council Tax are not fully covered. I don’t expect that benefits will be raised to cover the full cost of essentials, but something like the Covid-era £20 a week boost needs to be made permanent (and/or benefits increased over time as earnings rise). I think that Labour should be deeply embarrassed if they don’t cut absolute poverty, food bank use and homelessness; and indeed I have written about how the government is already internationally committed to halving UK poverty by 2030. Similarly, a failure to raise benefit levels in any way would mean that inequality and relative poverty would almost inevitably rise on Labour’s watch. So despite the radio silence, I think we should expect some form of new, real benefit rises in the next parliament.
7. If possible, expand spending on key centre-left goals. In addition to the extra spending implied above, as well as what’s urgently needed by many other public services, there are some ‘discretionary’ things I would like to see. I can see why they would not be priorities, but they should be considered when bearing in mind how much tax will be needed. First, the ‘temporary’ cut to international aid – from 0.7 to 0.5% of GDP – should end. Indeed, the government’s promises may already imply that this should happen in the next parliament, and if Labour achieves its fiscal goals (see #8) then it should also feel obliged to do this. This is significant money: 0.2% of GDP is around £6bn a year; but (despite enormous progress) there are still around 5 million under 5s dying every year, and 600,000 malaria deaths per year; and in theory £6bn a year could save 1.7 million lives per year (while Ukraine will no doubt need reconstruction funds at some point). Second – rather differently – we should fundamentally reform parental leave to tackle gender inequality and help parents. And third we should deliver universal primary free school meals, as in Scotland, Wales and temporarily London, and incremental (and fairly cheap) progress could be made: e.g. adding at least one year group (Year 3) in this parliament. It would be optimistic to expect all three of these centre-left measures in this parliament, but it might be too pessimistic to expect no progress.
8. Deliver on fiscal responsibility, implying higher taxes. In the current circumstances, including debt interest costs of over £100bn a year, we should be trying to reduce debt/GDP (and Labour have good political reasons to rebuild a reputation for sound finances). An ideal headline result might be to deliver a (cyclically-adjusted) day-to-day budget surplus in 2025-26, 2026-27, 2027-28 and 2028-29 and debt/GDP actually falling (all of which is already part of the November 2023 forecast). But given fiscal goals like that, increased investment, substantial new spending needed for public services (not just the NHS), and the case for the more discretionary spending measures above, the trade-off is that the government cannot afford to be generous when it comes to tax policy. Without getting into all the gory details, I think that means two basic things. First, particularly given the recent £10bn NI cut, new tax cuts should be few and far between (with some pro-growth exceptions such as Stamp Duty and Business Rates): this can’t be an era of real tax threshold rises and Council Tax freezes for example (nor perhaps Fuel Duty freezes), even if there is occassionally good fiscal news. Second, even given the current parliament’s tax rises and Labour’s minor tax rise plans, some new tax rises are going to be needed.
9. Don’t delay on fixing Council Tax and road taxes. To some extent this is an extension of #8 (and #1), but I think it is important. Imagine the following election is in May 2029. Labour would probably not like to fight this election on the basis of whether there should be a system of electric vehicle road pricing, or whether Council Tax reform should go ahead. Either such tax changes should have already happened and have bedded in, or if not then the political incentive would probably be to do and say nothing. But if no plans have been put in place by May 2029, even any post-2029-election changes would likely not happen until the 2030s. By 2033, the decline of Fuel Duty will be costing £18bn a year, and large numbers of drivers will be very used to paying no tax; while Council Tax will have become a significant, £60bn-a year levy, while still being in part a poll tax and based on valuations from 42 years earlier. If you want a ‘decade of renewal’, strong public finances, and healthy local government, I think you need to get the ball rolling on these thorny tax issues early on (making a virtue of taking grown-up decisions like not allowing Council Tax valuations to become even more outdated, or not being deceitful with Fuel Duty uprating policy). I think it is fair to say that the Conservatives would welcome the chance to oppose an EV road charge, or any Fuel Duty uprating, or any changes to Council Tax; but they still need to happen, and it would be better to act early than to wait until the problems have gotten even harder to solve. If you’re interested in the specifics, I would introduce a mileage-pricing system for EVs (at least new ones) by 2027, roughly equivalent to Fuel Duty; re-normalise Fuel Duty uprating (preferably monthly) as early as possible; and take steps to make Council Tax proportional to property values within councils, up-to-date, and fairer across councils, but separating out these changes as much as possible, particularly so that we can have regular, automatic revaluation (a foundation for any sensible system) without that scaring anyone. I have no idea how likely it is that Rachel Reeves will take action here, but I think her long-term legacy as Chancellor will partly depend on these decisions.
10. Improve our democracy. I don’t expect a large majority government to switch to proportional representation. I do not know how exactly the (71% male) House of Lords should be reformed, although ejecting – or at least phasing-out – the 92 hereditary peers (and ideally the 26 Lords Spiritual) would be a good start. (While you’re at, I would make all hereditary titles non-hereditary.) But I do expect votes at 16, potentially rationalisation of which non-citizens can vote, and ideally automatic voter registration – and together those changes would be a big deal. I also very much hope that the Conservatives’ switch to first-past-the-post for mayoral elections will be reversed.
In conclusion, I don’t think that is a particularly radical list, in part reflecting the state of the country, and Labour’s desire to reassure voters that it is not a revolutionary or irresponsible party. But I think it is very plausible that the next government could say it has delivered in these 10 areas by (e.g.) May 2029, and I think the country and world would be a better place as a result. People have low expectations going into the upcoming election, but a new majority government can – and must – achieve quite a lot in 4 or so years.