A mission to break down the barriers to opportunity – OK but what does it mean?

Earlier this week Kier Starmer set out his big vision for a Labour Government in what was trailed as a major speech. Predictably Guardian columnists like Polly Toynbee loved it. Toynbee declared that it revealed ‘a man serious about being prime minister’. Which to be fair has not ever been in doubt. We know that Starmer wants to be PM, what is not clear is what he will actually do with the job once he gets it.

The centre of his speech was Labour’s new five missions. These are as follows.

  1. Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7 with good jobs and productivity growth in every part of the country making everyone, not just a few, better off.
  2. Make Britain a clean energy superpower to create jobs, cut bills and boost energy security with zero-carbon electricity by 2030, accelerating to net zero.
  3. Build an NHS fit for the future by reforming health and care services to speed up treatment, harnessing life sciences and technology to reduce preventable illness and cutting health inequalities.
  4. Make Britain’s streets safe by reforming the police and justice system, to prevent crime, tackle violence against women, and stop criminals getting away without punishment.
  5. Break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage for every child, by reforming the childcare and education systems, raising standards everywhere, and preparing young people for work and life.

If you want to watch the whole speech, including an extended football analogy in which Starmer channels Ron Manager then here it is.

If you are as sharp a political analyst as I am you will be able to spot that all five of those missions could be articulated by any politician of any party in Britain. You will also spot that they are very short on any specific proposals. The briefing document that sits behind the speech is also incredibly thin.

Essentially there is very little in the document that you could really describe at a policy. Instead what it presents is a business school model for project management. A new Labour Party policy is now described as a ‘mission’ and a mission should take the following form.

  • A measurable goal
  • The projects to achieve that goal
  • The first steps that will deal with the immediate crises people face on the way to the bigger mission
  • A timeline towards the mission

This is useful as it provides a format for policy proposals, but it is pretty basic. The idea that it is an innovation for political parties to give some basic thought as to how the policy could actually be implemented is a damning indictment of our political culture. Of course you should think about how you should do stuff, but what stuff is it you want to do?

The policy document does provide some broad principles that should inform all Labour Party policies: policies should be connected to the big vision (what is this again?), focused on real impact, outcome focused rather than process driven, based on devolved decision making, accountable, and long-term in focus. This is all fine, but, this is the kind of stuff that you could find in an introductory business school textbook. Implementation 101, if you will. Do we have the right to ask more of politicians than basic competence? Does copy and pasting project management models, necessarily mean that such competence has been acquired? Technocracy is all very well (well it isn’t actually, but that is another story), but it has to be in service of some aim. What we received from Starmer was almost content free.

I’ll let others discuss the speech in more detail, because I wanted to focus in on the bit that I’m most interested in (at least professionally). One of the Labour Party’s big missions is to

Break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage for every child, by reforming the childcare and education systems, raising standards everywhere, and preparing young people for work and life.

This should be great and something that I’m ready to get behind. Looking at that sentence I’d be hoping for reinvigoration of early years provision, investment in schools, strengthening vocational education, rebooting apprenticeships, reinvigorating workplace training and wider adult education and of course saying something meaningful on career guidance. I might also expect that the party of Labour, which relies on education workers as a core part of its vote, might also say something about the importance of investing in staff within the education system.

But, as far as the policy document goes, one sentence is all we get. The speech does not cover it in any further detail. I can’t find anything in the questions asked to Starmer after he finished that really digs down into this any further, but his answers to other questions were often vague and evasive. Polly Toynbee suggests that we will probably see a shift from tuition fees to a graduate tax and a return to Sure Start (or something like that). But whether this just wishful thinking or an inside track to Labour policy is not clear. I can’t help but feel that a couple of days after a political party’s leader has given a major speech and the party has released a major new policy document, I shouldn’t have to turn to Polly Toynbee for her crystal ball gazing.

All in all I think that the Labour Party made no meaningful proposals about education, skills or careers this week. This seems like a massive missed opportunity. There is so much that they could be saying and doing here that would be uncontroversial and popular, as well as key things like addressing under-pay in the education system which are desperately needed. Of course none of this comes without a price tag (despite Starmer’s vague stuff about the ‘private sector’ as if it is some kind of no-strings-attached cash cow), and no one expects that we will get everything that we want on day one of a Labour government. But, Starmer’s speech leaves us with nothing but warm words, faint dreams and a basic grounding in the theory of project management.

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