Week-in-Review: Who will win Sunak and Starmer’s five-a-side pledge-off?

If you like your political leaders technocratic and their pledges vague and bullet-pointed, then the first two months of 2023 will have been truly gripping. The latest batch of bromides came courtesy of Sir Keir Starmer on Thursday, as the Labour leader outlined his “five national missions” in a speech in Manchester. It came just weeks after prime minister Rishi Sunak itemised his own ruthlessly pragmatic agenda for government; again, five was the magic number. 

Consciously contouring the terrain on which the next election will be fought, Sunak kicked off Britain’s five-a-side pledge-off in January to an atmosphere of demur and aversion. Promising to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut NHS waiting lists, and pass laws to stop the small boats crossing the Channel, Sunak claimed he was pronouncing the “people’s priorities”. But the politics behind the pledge-making was obvious. The PM was laying down some classic Conservative calling cards in a bid to challenge the still unproven Starmerite electoral machine. Even if the vows themselves could be slighted as unambitious and vague, the ball was punted deep into Starmer’s court. 

No stranger to a sporting challenge, the Labour leader debuted his new 5-point formation on Thursday to a similar mood of detached intrigue. Forearms exposed and with the self-confidence you would expect from a leader enjoying a 20-point polling advantage, the new “missions” were lined-up thusly: (1) Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7; (2) Build an NHS fit for the future; (3) Make Britain’s streets safe; (4) Break down barriers to opportunity at every stage; and (5) Turn Britain into a clean energy superpower.

The criticism and praise, from both internal and external sources, were immediate. It mirrored the reception of Sunak’s oath-swearing almost exactly.  

Detractors argued that missions prioritised expedience and electioneering — with Sir Keir strikingly silent on some issues while foregrounding others. In turn, opponents immediately poured scorn on the fact that the word “immigration” featured just once in Starmer’s address. They pointed out that “small boats” had made up one-fifth of the prime minister’s vows.

Of course, it is the very nature of the “five-point” approach to political presentation that some policy areas will be omitted. Starmer’s decision to pass over immigration is mirrored by Sunak’s neglect of net zero and energy security.  

In this way, there’s relatively little to learn from Starmer and Sunak’s co-equal silences. We well know that Sunak is under pressure from within his own party from a crackdown on “small boats”; and Starmer has made clear that he thinks he can win the argument on energy security (see his announcement of GB Energy during his speech to Labour conference in September).

But for both party leaders, a potential problem amid all the firming up and electioneering is that a coherent vision may fail to cut through. It is a point that Sir Keir is particularly exposed on, having already acquired a penchant for regular rebrands. Indeed, as Starmer was delivering his speech on Thursday, Penny Mordaunt could be seen mocking Starmer’s “11th relaunch” at the commons dispatch box. 

So amid the party-political furore, can either Starmer or Sunak’s pledge-making cut through the noise? Two recent case studies provide some useful insight. 

The EdStone 

For many commentators, the much-mocked Ed-stone underlines the folly of pre-election pledge-making. Constructed in the run-up to the 2015 election by order of Labour leader Ed Miliband, this comically large limestone tablet was unveiled before the national press to astonishment and amusement in equal measure. The intention was obvious: here was Miliband *literally* carving his promises in stone. To truly prove he was serious, the Labour leader promised to move the slab to the Downing Street Rose Garden after a Labour election victory. 

But the absurd optics notwithstanding, the pledges themselves were roundly rubbished as vague and patronising. Labour was vowing to deliver:

  1. A strong economic foundation
  2. Higher living standards for working families.
  3. An NHS with the time to care
  4. Controls on immigration
  5. A country where the next generation can do better than the last.
  6. Homes to buy and action on rents

Among the six vows, there was no uniting principle, no overarching scheme. There was nothing to object too but equally nothing to believe in. The Edstone is now presumably lying in an Indiana Jones-style warehouse, its memory a monument to Miliband’s political failure. 

Tony Blair’s pledge card

The gold standard of political pledges is Tony Blair’s pre-1997 election pledge card. The details speak for themselves:

  1. We will cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7 year olds by using money saved from the assisted places scheme
  2. We will introduce a fast track punishment scheme for persistent young offenders by halving the time from arrest to sentencing
  3. We will cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step by releasing £100m saved from NHS red tape
  4. We will get 250,000 under-25 years-olds off benefit and into work by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities
  5. We will set tough rules for government spending and borrowing and ensure low inflation and strengthen the economy so that interest rates are as low as possible to make all families better off

Unlike Miliband’s much-maligned six commitments, these vows were deemed to be specific and achievable. How will Blair cut class sizes? Simple: by “using money saved from the assisted places scheme”. 

Of course, the political incentives on oath-taking have changed since the 1990s; there remains little chance of us seeing finely-printed pledge cards any time soon. But one wonders whether the prime minister’s messaging will match up to Blair’s proven example. How will Sunak cut NHS waiting lists? Well, I’m not sure he’s told us yet.  

On a scale of “Edstone” to Blair “pledge card”, therefore, Sunak’s “people’s priorities” fall somewhere in between. The prime minister will be hoping it’s closer to the latter. I’m not so sure.

One potentially significant semantic point is that a Blair- or Sunak-style “pledge” is not necessarily the same as a “mission” a la Starmer. Indeed, where a “pledge” is by definition specific, achievable and agreeable — “missions” are concerned first and foremost with ideological intent and vision. The long-term policy implications of “economic growth”, an NHS “fit for the future”, making Britain an “energy superpower” and “safe streets” are not at all clear. But of course this is not the point right now. The Labour leader is merely intimating at what Starmerite success looks like. In the end, the new “missions” represent but a small divergence from Sir Keir’s old tactic of keeping his target small and hoping the prime minister falters first.

Ultimately, it is one of the rare advantages of opposition politics that Starmer is not obliged to explain every specific detail when it comes to his missions. But Sunak has no such excuse, after a period of political permacrisis Britain expects delivery — and the prime minster’s vagueness may in the long run prove politically costly. 

Towards 2024…

In Starmer we find a political leader operating in the comfortable middle ground between boldness and indecision — pursuing politics that is neither too dogmatic and driven or too meaningless and meandering.

So Starmer did up the electoral ante in Manchester — but probably by just one notch. How seriously his “missions” are taken will depend both on the detail to come (expected in a series of upcoming speeches) and the potential success of Sunak’s own pledges.