Monday 15 April 2024

Top priorities


One of the mantras often used in management training courses and business schools is that anyone who has more than three priorities effectively has no priorities at all. Whether ‘three’ is the right number, rather than, say, two or four, is a matter of opinion, but the key message is that setting too many priorities means that each of them gets insufficient attention to be meaningful. It’s one of the reasons for the problems in a large organisation like the NHS – management and staff have so many priority targets that it’s impossible to give appropriate focus to all of them. It’s a mistake that Starmer and Labour are apparently keen not to make, by being clear about their top priority.

Whether they’ve chosen the right priority to make number one for this week is another question, as is whether they’ve thought through the implications. Starmer told us on Friday that his absolute top priority is to increase spending on armaments and military personnel, including especially the renewal of the UK’s weapons of mass destruction. His words left little room for misinterpretation as to the meaning and their implication. If one policy is the number one priority, all other policies must, by definition, have a lower priority. If push comes to shove, weapons will have priority over the NHS (where we’ve already been told that there will be no new money without further use of the private sector reform), education, housing and reducing poverty and inequality. And threatening to massacre millions of citizens elsewhere (and although there are conflicting views on the matter, there are considerable doubts as to whether the UK even has the ability to use the weapons without US say-so) is more important than ensuring the wellbeing of citizens in the UK. Despite the fact that even some in the military have long doubted whether the possession of nuclear weapons is the most effective use of resources. Perhaps Starmer genuinely believes that having the means to incinerate millions of foreigners is more important than eliminating poverty at home. Perhaps he doesn’t believe that, but believes that he has to say that he does in order to win an election. It’s hard to decide which of those two possibilities is the most depressing.

Starmer’s statement has aroused the ire of many in his party who still cling forlornly to the notion that Labour is an internationalist party supporting solidarity amongst workers of all nations rather than an English nationalist party harking back to the days of empire and ruling the waves. It’s just wishful thinking. Starmer has made his choice, and been clear about it.

Or has he?

In February 2021, Labour’s top priority was ‘financial responsibility’, code for more austerity. In October 2023, there were five priorities, none of which related to defence or the military. In November 2023 Labour’s top priority in foreign policy (and defence is surely at least partly about foreign policy) was closer ties with the EU. In December 2023, the top priority was economic growth. Or maybe Wealth Creation. In January 2024, it was knife crime. I’m sure that I can half-remember other examples over the last couple of years as well. You pays your money and you takes your choice, as the saying goes: every audience will find that Labour has a number one priority tailored to its own desires. But if an organisation with more than three priorities effectively has none at all, where does that leave a man and a party with at least 10, and counting?

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