Labour is promising a ‘mission-led’ government, but the real needs are right now

As the dust begins to settle on one of the most remarkable General Elections in living memory, the resounding plea from all quarters is for a sea change in the way that the business of politics is conducted. Whatever one’s assessment of the past 14 years of Conservative rule, few would argue that we’ve seen a total collapse of trust and confidence in our legislators, and in a system of government that has failed to address any of the most urgent problems in contemporary British society.

It has been said today that Keir Starmer’s victory is an historic landslide, but the voting results tell a rather different story. Labour won this election with 9,686,329 votes, which is actually 582,722 less votes than Jeremy Corbyn’s 10,269,051 Labour votes in the 2019 General Election – and he lost! The reality is not so much that Labour swept the board, rather that their support has declined significantly – the result for Labour came because the Tory vote scattered to other parties, especially Reform.

At the bottom line, The Labour mandate to govern comes from a mere 22% of the voting electorate, which presents a heavy challenge to the party’s desire to change fundamentally the political landscape of the UK, and for Keir Starmer to achieve his aspiration to be “an inclusive, determined prime minister who will look out for everyone in the country”.

Whilst we are all desperate for the winds of change and decency to permeate the corridors of Westminster, the new Labour government is unfortunately going to find itself confronting the conundrum that has been the undoing of many a would-be legislator – what does the British public actually believe, and what does it really want?
One of the great complications of tampering with and dismantling established moral codes is that whilst liberation from conformity and strictures may seem like an attractive prospect, it’s critical to the preservation of the social order to replace old norms with equally unambiguous mechanisms of behaviour, otherwise chaos and personal disorientation can accumulate.

Many of the great social changes of the 20th century brought badly needed improvements in the human condition but as the century closed we seemed to slip increasing into a kind of relativism that dismissed the notion of the human person as an essential part of a wider societal community, and increasingly swung the emphasis onto the centrality of the individual human experience of society and the world.

Thus liberties, and certainly communal liberties, have been replaced increasingly with individual rights, with the consequence that society no longer comprises so much identifiable groups of people, but is fast becoming rather a collection of unique individuals all demanding to be respected and acknowledged equally.

For legislators this presents a particular difficulty. In generations past the population adhered vigorously to sharply defined political loyalties, to the extent that the impact of and reaction to virtually any political proposal could be anticipated, negotiated – or wisely avoided. In the present political climate it has become almost impossible to predict what the public mind is on any keynote issue; some would even argue that the public relationship with politics has become so fragmented that even the concept of ‘public opinion’ or ‘public reaction’ has become meaningless.

Add to this the systematic suppression of unpopular or controversial opinion that has been driven through society in the past few decades, and you have the most dangerous and unstable of all political dilemmas – a society that behaves and talks to one set of moral and societal standards, but adheres privately to entirely different value sets.

This will be a central problem for the Starmer government, especially as the Labour Party has increasingly shifted its moral and legislative brief away from the Left of UK politics. One of the main reasons given for the collapse of the Tory vote – even by Tory ministers themselves – was that the Conservative Party had drifted too far to the Left, and had abandoned those values and principles that everyday Tory supporters recognised and shared. As former Tory politician Dame Andrea Leadsom put it: “Perhaps it’s that we’ve not been conservative enough”, adding that in the pub a group of Conservatives had told her “they’re sick of all this woke stuff, they’re sick of all this trying to be more left-wing than Labour”.
This was undoubtedly what gave impetus to Reform, which has rapidly become a Right wing refuge for disillusioned hardline Tories.

Where does all this leave Keir Starmer and his new Cabinet? Well, frankly, still struggling to work out what’s best for British politics and for the British public, at a time when no-one really has the faintest idea what the public sees as the most urgent priorities of the moment. In such circumstances, trying to chase the zeitgeist – which is what most political leaders have been trying to do for far too long – simply isn’t a workable strategy. The political history books of the past half century are littered with examples of catastrophic misjudgements of this kind – the conviction that the British public would never vote for Brexit, the Iraq war, the handling of the Covid pandemic.

In the face of such a cloud of unknowing when it comes to public opinion and societal boundaries, it’s no surprise that Mr Starmer has committed himself to a ‘mission-led’ government – where longer-term objectives and promises are made to deal with big issues and a government organises and conducts itself around the delivery of the final objective. So rather than becoming bogged down in trying to achieve smaller, domestic targets in pursuit of an ideal, the ‘mission’led’ government remains driven towards the final outcome, such that obstacles along the way are just there to be overcome in the pursuit of the greater objective. President John F. Kennedy declaring wildly in 1962 that America was going to put a man on the moon could be regarded as a textbook example of good mission-led government. Equally, Boris Johnson announcing in 2020 that HS2 was going ahead despite the spiralling costs could well be cited as an example of extremely bad ‘mission-led’ government.

Given the present economic and general global turmoil, opting for a ‘mission-led’ form of government might sound like wise counsel, but it’s a strategy that becomes flawed fatally in a climate where the goalposts are moving constantly – and that’s where we are embedded today.

Policies such as this have profound impact for people of faith also, as governments focussed disproportionately on larger, long-term objectives can often miss and fail to react to lesser shifts in public concern and circumstances. If one looks at the areas of moral and societal concern that faith groups talk about most, it’s not long-term strategies that are needed, but the ability of government to react quickly to smaller, but desperately urgent needs. In blunt terms the poor, the homeless, the sick and the vulnerable cannot wait until longer-term visionary strategies for the reordering of society have been completed. Their need is of the moment, and it is in these places that our new government needs to be most pro-active.

You can see this disconnect clearly in Labour’s Five Missions that Starmer announced in February 2023:

•  Get the UK’s economic growth to the highest sustained level in the G7 by the end of Labour’s first term

•  Make Britain a “clean energy superpower” with zero-carbon electricity by 2030

•  Improve the NHS by reforming health and care service and reducing health inequality

•  Create safer streets with 13,000 more neighbourhood police and police community support officers

•  Improve opportunity for all citizens through improvements in childcare, schools, further education and lifelong learning.

Few would challenge the virtue of such bold and generalised aspirations, but the phraseology points to long-term tasks, at precisely a time when the need for intervention for the public good is at its most urgent.

Across the day we have seen a number of Catholic organisations, leaders and commentators calling for the government to ‘act urgently’ or to ‘make it a priority’ to address particular social ills and inequalities. After several months of asking Catholics to consider these issues when they came to vote, it is now down to faith communities to press the government hard to address urgent ground-level issues of human concern with as much priority as it’s intending to devote to its longer-term goals.

Of course we do need to build a better Britain for future generations, but this mustn’t be achieved at the cost of ignoring present human sufferings and difficulties. The Samaritan may have been hurrying to Jericho …

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian