The Hollow Men

Taking a closer look at the change Starmer and Sarwar are offering us

Denis Donoghue

7/12/20235 min read

red and white rose petals on white table
red and white rose petals on white table

T S Elliot's poem, The Hollow Men, could have been written about the current Labour leadership pairing of Sir Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar..

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion

Labour's current mantra; that it offers 'change', is a typically hollow slogan. But, as the Scottish media seems unwilling or unable to scrutinise Labour's promises, I thought I'd take a look at the substance of this 'change' that my Twitter feed keeps spouting at me from various branch officials.

Let's be very clear from the outset. There's no such thing as Scottish Labour. It's not registered as a political party with the Electoral Commission, and is solely a regional accounting unit of the UK Labour Party. So, what Anas Sarwar says about Labour Policy is largely irrelevant. The man pulling the strings is the London-based leader, Sir Keir Starmer. Whenever Anas strays from the message, the phone from London rings, and he makes the appropriate U-turn.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

I've had a look at the detail of Sir Keir's five missions to see if he elaborates on his somewhat vacuous statements; which, in themselves, are fairly meaningless. The first mission is to have the fastest growing economy in the G7. We know from the recent Sunday Times Report that Labour will not increase spending to boost the economy, nor will it increase tax rates (even for the wealthiest). In Scotland, that might mean that recent progressive tax increases to allow fair pay settlements for teachers, nurses, ambulance workers and junior doctors could be reversed by a future Labour administration; keen to show its fiscal conservatism and to keep in stride with the rest of the UK. So, how exactly will Labour achieve this remarkable growth? Well, they have a five step policy plan to do that, but don't hold your breath; it's very light on detail:

  1. Set up a new (unspecified) Industrial Strategy overseen by a new Industrial Strategy Council

  2. A Green Prosperity Plan and deregulating planning rules

  3. Creating a national wealth fund and devolving economic development strategy (in England)

  4. More flexibility in skills funding and employment support, more affordable housing (planning deregulation again)

  5. Making Brexit Work (yes really) and creating Great British Energy

An industrial strategy would be welcome, but it's only a plan to do something, and another QANGO being set up to oversee it - not exactly hitting the ground running. They've already rowed back on the commitment to invest £28 Billion a year in the Green Prosperity Plan. And planning deregulation has been a hobby horse of the conservative right since the days of the Ark, but in reality it never survives contact with real conservative voters who are rather more fond of their Green and Pleasant land than many of their politicians. The national wealth fund is again a good idea, but it's too little and too late. Establishing such a fund (to ensure energy wealth is reinvested for sustainable economic growth) was a key pillar of the Independence campaign in 2014. If Anas Sarwar and his Scottish 'comrades' had supported self-determination, we'd already be benefiting from such a fund instead of still talking about it. And yes, skills are important to economic growth but tinkering with flexibility won't provide the step change required, unless there is significant new investment backing it up. And, as the Scottish Government have discovered, setting up a new energy producer is not straightforward or cheap. If a new Labour Government is committed to doing this, how will they fund it? And, if they are not changing the Tory spending levels, what are they going to cut, in order to pay for it? According to the Guardian, the new energy company will be set up through seed funding during the first year of a Labour Government which would come from the Wealth Fund. However, the £8 Billion for the wealth fund comes out of the already-watered-down commitment of £28 Billion each year.

The Labour leader also seems a little confused about how to address inequality; believing that by spending money in different parts of the UK disadvantage will be somehow addressed. There is nothing about addressing structural inequalities in education, poor transport or access to digital infrastructure. There is nothing about wealth redistribution. Nor is there a commitment to overturning some of the punitive welfare changes implemented by the Tories, such as the Bedroom Tax or the Rape Clause.

But, the piece de resistance of Labour's economic plan of 'Making Brexit Work' just doesn't add up. Brexit is widely acknowledged as an act of economic self-harm. It places additional costs and burdens on doing trade with our European partners and makes recruiting to fill labour shortages much more difficult and costly for Scottish businesses. Sir Keir Starmer backs a hard Brexit, knowing he needs the votes of former UKIP supporters in the so-called red wall seats. Anas Sarwar also backs this position despite admitting that Brexit is an economic disaster for the UK economy. When asked by Robert Peston about re-joining the EU, he said:

“Are we going back into the European Union? Sadly not.”

The Centre for European Reform has modelled the impact of Brexit in 2021 and estimated that it has resulted in a drop in trade of between 11% and 16%. That amounted to £12.8 Billion in 2021 alone. We've all seen the empty supermarket shelves, poorer quality fresh produce because of import delays, as well as the soaring prices. So, this economic disaster is at the heart of Labour's economic strategy; with no inclination to realign the UK with our European partners. Any investments in green technology such as battery production are going to be hamstrung by Brexit restrictions making it impossible to compete effectively in the EU markets. Any growth that is achieved will be like turning the switch on a moribund Frankenstein's monster. It may look alive, but it won't function anywhere near as well as it did previously.

Elsewhere in Labour's briefing paper, in almost every instance where it talks about Britain, it means England. Because you'd be forgiven for thinking that devolution either never took place, or was about to be reversed by the next Labour Government. Whether it's putting more police onto Britain's streets, tackling early years provision or boosting the NHS; it talks about Britain but its measures focus on England. In it's Breaking down the Barriers to Opportunity mission paper, it mentions Britain 22 times, England 14 times and Scotland not once!

Much of the substance of its change (in Britain/ England) seems to be based on recruiting large numbers of staff: teachers, early years practitioners, police officers, careers advisors and nurses; but as ever there is no clarity on where they will be cutting spending to pay for this; let alone how they will find or develop the required skills. And there's a lot of restructuring, reforming and reviewing proposed. But Scotland doesn't warrant a mention; not even as an after-thought.

Labour's five missions for a Better Britain amount to little more than a wish list for reforming England. Their flagship policies of A Wealth Fund and Energy Company rely on unspecified funding and even with funding will take a long time to get off the ground. Their policies do not address how to fundamentally reform the UK economy and governance through electoral reform, wealth redistribution or infrastructure investment.

By supporting Brexit, Labour are accepting economic mediocrity. And by supporting the Union they are accepting a neoliberal duopoly, where they take turn and about to govern Scotland with their Tory chums.

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass