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Tories insist the plan is working, while Labour sets course for change

Polling Station UK
Public Affairs

All election campaigns fall into one of two camps: ‘stick with the plan’ and ‘time for change’.  

In ‘stick with the plan’, the message to voters is “We’re almost out of the woods and the sunlit uplands are just ahead, so for God’s sake don’t let the other lot ruin it”. This approach delivered David Cameron his surprise majority in 2015, when lingering distrust of Labour was still fresh, but failed to keep Gordon Brown from seeing the New Labour flame snuffed out in 2010. 

In ‘time for change’, the message is even more obvious: “These guys have had it. They’re at each other’s throats and out of ideas. Give them a kicking and let us clear up the mess.” This worked spectacularly in 1997, delivering Blair his landslide, but didn’t quite do enough to give the Conservatives better than a hung parliament in 2010. 

Other blends of these two models are available and can go either way (see the 2017 and 2019 elections). 2024, though, looks set to be a classic “plan” vs “change” election. 

This week saw those battle lines hardening between Labour and the Conservatives, with two competing messages on the economy. 

In the blue corner, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt this week declared “the plan is working” in response to inflation falling by more than expected to 3.4%. Against a peak of 11% in autumn 2022 and the OBR forecasting the 2% target will finally be met around the middle of this year, the Conservatives can at least point to clear progress in the right direction.  

And while today’s Bank of England held interest rates at 5.25% as expected (following the US Federal Reserve decision to do the same yesterday), the tide is clearly turning towards a cut in the coming months.  

At PMQs yesterday, Rishi Sunak repeated that all the economic indicators prove that “we need to stick to the plan to deliver a brighter future for our country.” Labour, he insisted, don’t have a plan of their own. 

In the red corner, though, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves this week argued that it is very much ‘time for change’ and set out more detail on her own plans for the economy. Delivering the prestigious Mais Lecture, Reeves argued for her model of ‘securonomics’, which she first set out in a speech in Washington DC last spring.  

Securonomics – while not exactly tripping off the tongue – is Reeves’ solution for what she calls “an age of uncertainty” triggered by the “hyper-globalisation” of the pre-2008 financial crash and the “fundamental underappreciation of the role of government” after it. It puts domestic resilience and long-term planning at the heart of the approach.  

Reeves’s plan involves “new partnerships” both between a more active state and free markets and between countries with shared values. Practically, this means a “strategic and selective” modern industrial policy and providing certainty and stability about the business environment to drive investment. Reeves insists that this doesn’t mean picking winners and that involves “not the big state but the smart state”. Either way, it’s a change. 

Her lecture included re-commitments to a roadmap for business taxation, maintaining corporation tax at 25% for the duration of the next parliament, and providing much longer-term budgets for key R&D institutions to help them plan.  

It also promised more rigid guardrails on tax and spending for an incoming Labour government – determined to avoid looking profligate – through a new fiscal lock and strengthened role for the independent Office for Budget Responsibility in holding Labour to its fiscal rules. Added in were significant reforms to the planning system, which Reeves called “the greatest obstacle to our economic success”, greater devolution of skills powers, and a recommitment to the New Deal Workers that will get tough on zero hours contracts among other reforms to employment rights. 

No matter what she – or Keir Starmer – says over the coming months, though, the Conservatives will insist that it doesn’t amount to a real plan compared to the one they will say is seeing interest rates and inflation come down.  

Just as Labour will insist that it’s time to change course from the Conservative government that oversaw those rates ballooning in the first place.  

But with new polling today showing the Conservatives dipping to just 19% - a depth last plumbed under Liz Truss – and Reform UK just four points behind them, it is Labour – sitting at 44% - who have reason to be confident that 2024 will be an election when ‘time for change’ will triumph over ‘stick with the plan’.