Labour: a new hope?

Sir Keir Starmer’s low-key approach may yet pay dividends. He has cleaned up his party and faces a tired government — but he must now seize his opportunity


This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Delegates to the Labour Party conference arrived in Liverpool with a familiar feeling: the tentative hope, almost the belief, that they might win the next election. 

It should not be a familiar feeling. After all, the 2024 election will include first-time voters who were not even born last time Labour won. But it is. At Labour’s conferences in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2018, a substantial chunk of the party’s supporters thought that they might be on the verge of power. Since then, following the catastrophic 2019 election, there has seemed little prospect of doing more than wondering whether the 2030s might be Labour’s decade.

A new conventional wisdom is emerging

When, from late 2019 onwards, Boris Johnson’s government was riding successive waves of public support (post-election benefit-of-the-doubt; post-Brexit relief; early-pandemic fear and solidarity; Sunak-handout-enthusiasm; vaccine gratitude; post-lockdown release) even the idea of a mid-term opposition poll lead felt far-fetched. If there was any debate at all about what would happen to Labour at the next election, it was between those who thought it would lose because the structural barriers to victory were insurmountable, and those who thought that it would lose because the structural barriers to victory were insurmountable and also because Keir Starmer was rubbish.

Starmer’s internal opponents enjoyed saying that any other leader would be 20 points ahead — echoing those who had seriously, but idiotically, said the same thing during Jeremy Corbyn’s period as leader. Regardless of faction, those associated with one failed period of Labour leadership or another — and there are a lot of us — will always find an opportunity to point out to the new incumbents that it is not as easy as it looks. But unlike those who said it of Corbyn, those who said it of Starmer were smart enough to be joking. The truth was that the government was actually popular, and there was little Labour could do about it.

Gradually, then suddenly, that changed. Boris Johnson went from being a Prime Minister who, in the words of one political journalist, squatted like a giant toad across British politics, to one who lay flattened like a giant toad in a rear-view mirror. And the Conservatives have moved equally rapidly from denial that there was a problem with Johnson, to recognition that the problem was so great that he had to be removed from office, to forgetting so quickly why he was removed that his name was barely mentioned in the Tory leadership election except to praise him.

With a new Prime Minister, a new conventional wisdom is emerging: Labour must not underestimate Liz Truss. This is true as far as it goes: nobody should ever underestimate anything; that’s what “underestimate” means. But first impressions are that Truss is more difficult to underestimate than most of her predecessors. And the growing idea that Labour might be in a position to win owes less to Truss herself, or indeed to Starmer or Labour, and more to some changes to the wider strategic landscape.

For a start, the Tories’ squandering of their 2019 landslide is not so much about their failure to do very much with it yet, as it is about their ditching of a central argument about the next election down the line. 

In 2019 Johnson presented a tired, old government as a brand new one, and his victory, along with Brexit, gave the Tories the opportunity to reset the clock to year zero. But replacing Johnson mid-term, even for good reasons, deprives his party of an argument that might have been compelling in 2024 had he stayed: you gave us a chance in 2019; we’ve made a start but haven’t completed it yet, because of events beyond our control; give us the time to finish the job. 

Truss’s message to the country may well turn out to have appealing elements, but one thing it lacks, and simply cannot have this side of an election, is any kind of appeal to a continuity mandate from last time’s Conservative voters, whether from the Red Wall, the Blue Wall or any other part of the country. Unexpectedly, we have a 12-year-old government that nobody voted for.

For another thing, the Conservatives are conceding arguments that have been central to their sense of self since they took office. Truss can and will make a case against Labour at the next election, but one thing she will not be in any position to do with any credibility is to warn about the dangers of borrowing. 

Labour enjoyed watching the Tory leadership race

She may believe that spending to help households and businesses with otherwise unaffordable energy bills is best funded through borrowing for now, but it robs her of the ability to warn that shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’s plan for £28 billion a year of green investment measures are irresponsible. As Rishi Sunak found, there is little appetite even among Conservative members for dry fiscal discipline, and so Truss doesn’t do it.

Labour enjoyed watching the Tory leadership race: having your opponents rip each other to pieces is a lot easier than doing it yourself. The outcome, a new Prime Minister who hates handouts but gives them out anyway, but who hates taxes so avoids saying how she will pay for the handouts, means that Labour — perhaps to its own surprise — can keep running with its call for a popular tax on energy company profits.

At the same time, Truss’s defence of tax cuts that benefit the richest most as “fair” may well be principled, but there are questions about how well it will play in a country where wages have stayed flat for a decade and inflation is rising, where growth has stagnated, where public services are visibly and dangerously run down, where housing is unaffordable for too many people, especially young people, and where the same party has been in government for over a decade.

The Conservatives have had twice as many leaders since the 2015 election as Labour has had, and changing them so often could have diminishing returns. Part of Starmer’s job has been to reckon with the fact that the smell of previous unpopular, failed leaders lingers long after they have gone, and he is further along with the project of cleaning up the mess — and, it must be said, more visibly enthusiastic about it — than Truss is. 

He is too cautious, too boring

Some of the internal hostility to Starmer arises directly from this clean-up project. But most of it is expressed in different terms. Starmer has broken his promises, according to people who are astonishingly quick to identify things a future Labour government will not be able to be influenced to do, and astonishingly lacking in confidence about their own ability to influence it. Labour loses elections so inevitably, apparently, that we can assess whether their leaders keep their promises without reference to whether they actually become Prime Minister and do the things they said they would do. 

In fact, no Labour leader since Gordon Brown has kept a promise, or broken one. This premature criticism of Starmer understates the constraints of opposition, overstates the inflexibility of governments and discounts the possibility of a future Labour government being forced to change course by events, by persuasion or by brute politics. 

Look at how many things the Conservatives have done over the last 12 years that aren’t just breaches of promises they made in opposition, but breaches of promises made in government, or even — in Truss’s case — breaches of promises made in leadership campaigns just a few weeks ago. Few governments long resemble the oppositions from which they sprang.

Another frequent criticism of Starmer is linked to this: he is too cautious, too boring, wrong to say that “the loss of our Queen robs this country of its stillest point” because, in fact, the country’s stillest point is him. There is something to be said for this: there have been times under his leadership when Labour has been slow to react, or when its reaction has been insufficiently interesting to make news. 

But most oppositions are not noticed, most of the time. If radical policies are needed, then it isn’t enough simply to have them: they have to dramatise a political message, and be deployed in a way, and at a time, that ensures they will be heard.

By spending the first part of his leadership being reassuring to some, and frustrating to others, Keir Starmer has given Labour space, and the opportunity to fill it. David Cameron spent years on his detoxification project after 2005, but an observer of the Conservatives in 2008 would have got a lot wrong about what kind of Prime Minister he would be. 

It wasn’t until 2009, just a year out from the election, that Cameron shifted from a friendly promise to “share the proceeds of growth” to a more hard-edged focus on deficit reduction. It changed the terms of debate, and it laid — for the worse — the foundations for the stretched and frayed public realm now and at the next election. 

Starmer has time to do more between now and then, and more moments to seize than you might think. There is plenty we don’t know about the shape of Labour’s next manifesto. And that’s good: it means that Labour has important things to say in the next two years, when it will be useful, rather than in the last two years, when it mostly wouldn’t have been.

With Truss new in post, politics is unsettled. Labour conference will be one of those moments when Starmer, and his party, can get a national hearing. If they seize it, the hopes of their more optimistic supporters might just — for once — not be misplaced.

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