Starmer is now a master of broken promises – but will anyone notice?

You don’t have to support Keir Starmer to agree with the logic he set out in his speech today. Years of Tory regicide and psychodrama have bred instability; broken pledges and failed policies have damaged faith in politics overall. But as he says, it’s dangerous to write off every politician in despair. Starmer’s pledge is simple: he offers calm, credibility and a remedy to the “age of insecurity”. This, he says, will embolden companies to invest. He deserves to be heard with an open mind – and judged on his record.

The problem is that this record is one of indecision, U-turn and big ideas, which fall apart quite regularly. The distinguishing feature of Labour policies is a vacuum where serious policy ought to be. “Four years I’ve been working for this,” he said. So we can look back on those four years and ask what evidence there is that his judgment is better and that his promises are to be taken seriously.

Some of his achievements are incontestable. He’s right to say he offers “a changed party” after leading the purge of the Corbynistas. He’s a palpably decent man with some impressive people around him preaching realism rather than revolution. Darren Jones, deputy to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, tells this week’s Spectator that Labour knows it must reform, not splurge. Any extra money, he says, will come not from tax or borrowing but from economic growth.

But if tax or regulation isn’t being cut substantially, how will the economy grow? This is the interesting point. The idea is that what Reeves calls “securonomics” will create the conditions for private companies to invest. No more of that Tory chopping and changing. The Starmite talk of stability is a kind of a rain dance, which they believe will see private sector money drip from the sky.

Starmer’s signature economic policy was announced two years ago: to follow America and the EU and embark upon a huge state spending programme to support green technology. “Labour is committed to a climate investment pledge worth £28 billion a year until 2030,” he said. It was “a down payment that will unlock the private investment which delivers the next generation of jobs”.

Sunak had rejected this as unaffordable and madness to fight Biden in a borrow-and-spend competition. To Starmer, this was a test of judgment. “We cannot be like the Tories – clinging to old ideas.”

This £28 billion – to be spent every year of Labour rule – was supposed to be Starmer’s article of economic faith. But it’s being embalmed, prior to burial. The pretence now is that the £28 billion-a-year has not been abandoned, just delayed until when Labour’s “fiscal rules” allow. Which is to say: never. So those tempted to take a Starmer economic promise to the bank have been given a taste of what to expect.

Listen closely and you can hear other key pledges being taken outside and shot. The nationalisation of utilities has been abandoned (or ranked behind “other priorities”) as has his pledge to abolish tuition fees and Universal Credit. They were part of the 10 pledges he published to become Labour Party leader, now dropped so quickly that they have been deleted from his website. In his defence, they were very bad ideas but they got him through a tight spot. He probably meant them at the time.

One Starmer pledge that still survives is to give Britain “a cheaper, zero-carbon electricity system by 2030”. This has been given the status of a top-five Labour mission and taken as proof that he’s a radical – and not just a lawyer-bot waiting to be programmed by the Tony Blair Institute.

So we are led to believe that, under Labour, all UK electricity will be made by wind, solar and nuclear: completed in just six years’ time. Any gas still coming out of the pipes by then would somehow have to be balanced out by carbon capture technology.

To pledge to do this in such a short space of time is not an ambition, it’s just a joke. Even the unions are mocking him. “Impossible,” says Gary Smith, GMB chief. “I don’t even worry about it. It cannot be done.”

The necessary cables, he recently told me, could not be laid until 2030 so the new infrastructure “might look great, but we’ll be watching it in the dark”. Has Smith been swept up by a “tide of cynicism” as Starmer suggested yesterday? Or is just pointing out that these promises are demonstrable nonsense?

Boris Johnson’s critics spoke about his odd “relationship with the truth”. Starmer has the same odd relationship with promises: the two certainly share an ability to be verbally creative when caught in a tight spot. Starmer’s innovation is to make dodgy promises while denouncing dodgy promises. But this does matter. Saying his 2030 green energy plan will somehow cut bills by the end of the decade by £93 billion (or £3,300 a household) could be believed, raise false hope – and undermine faith in politics.

It makes electoral sense for Starmer to drop bad pledges – so as to present as small a target as possible ahead of the next election. Few can really say what he stands for and yet he has a greater lead over the Government than almost any previous Labour leader at this stage in an election cycle.

As he can see, the election isn’t really about him. He can promise what he likes, because so few are paying serious attention to him. He’ll see the next election as an exorcism of the Tory demon, in which his main role is to stand aside and let them get on with it and mutter about stability.

So a speech denouncing political cynicism was, in fact, dripping with it. He’ll know the 2030 plan is undoable, but it suits him to pretend otherwise. He’ll still be able to play with other things that don’t cost money: his planned overhaul of the school curriculum, for example, undoing one of the changes that the Tories got right.

Will he win? It’s very likely. What will he do? It’s hard to tell. But can he be trusted more than the Tories? After his four years of broken promises, we certainly have the answer to that.

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