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Left wing league table

Who holds keys to the future of British politics?

Artillery Row

Making lists of prominent persons is a tried and tested way of organising what we know or think about people: “Let us now praise famous men.” It is a straightforward means of identifying a set of people who matter in some particular way, ordering them in relation to one another. In late May, the New Statesman had a good go at applying this seductively simple exercise to their wider political tribe, publishing a “left power list” of the fifty “most influential people shaping Britain’s progressive politics”.

There is a danger, of course, that creating a sort of left-wing listicle smacks of outdated Buzzfeedery (remember them?), but the New Statesman piece is pretty insightful. Given the overwhelming likelihood of a Labour government in the near future, it’s worth a read.

The New Statesman list is immediately striking in placing Rachel Reeves MP, the Shadow Chancellor, in prime position. She is identified directly as “the most influential person on the British Left today”. She pips Sir Keir to first place.

Reeves does not loom overly large in the public consciousness. The Starmerite Labour Party has worked hard to reposition itself as the acceptable face of technocratic competence: nothing too flashy, nothing too extreme. The contrast is, of course, with the previous internal Party régime. Labour now cultivates a cult of impersonality.

Precious few will choose empty conservative rhetoric over an economic plan

The New Statesman judges that “The economy and the living standards crisis are the defining political issues of our time” and further suggests that “On these questions, Starmer, who doesn’t have an economic background, defers to Reeves”.

The basic thesis here is correct. Regardless of the precise power-relationship between the Leader of HM Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor, the prevailing winds in British politics are economic. The British state still faces existential questions — not least on Scotland and devolution — but the cost of living, low wages and expensive housing are the immediate issues which occupy the British voter. People do actually notice inflation: the pound in your pocket is worth less than it was last year.

The Labour Party would do well to lean heavily into the economic sphere. Since 2010 the electorate have leaned right not necessarily because they are particularly fond of the Conservative Party, but because the Conservatives claimed to be the party of hard-nosed economic realism. Yet now, after thirteen years of Conservative misrule, anybody with eyes to see can spot that the United Kingdom is under-performing. The Tories daren’t acknowledge this.

This is a bruise, and the Labour Party should press on it. The Tories will squirm. They will attempt — as even the dullest Conservative MPs begin to process the implications of the coming election — to fight on culture war issues. With increasing desperation, the Conservatives will try to position themselves so that the next election revolves around small boats and gender ideologies. Particularly bovine strategists may even be foolish enough to plan for the last war, attacking Starmer for his previous support for Jeremy Corbyn. As the New Statesman very plainly acknowledges, however, Sir Keir (No. 2 on the list) has been ruthless in distancing himself from his predecessor. Even where voters aren’t cold to the shibboleths of cultural progressives on gender or open borders, precious few people are going to choose empty conservative rhetoric over an economic plan.

There are pitfalls for the next Labour government to avoid, nevertheless. A rush to ill-conceived constitutional reform should be avoided at all costs. Labour is currently pledged to abolish the House of Lords. This would be a horrendous misstep, for both country and party. The calibre of appointees certainly needs to rise, and a reform of the appointments process would certainly not be unwelcome.

A proportionally-elected upper house would undermine the unique democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons and its political supremacy, however, as well as becoming a fetter to bind future Labour governments. Labour majorities in the Commons would be forever subject to the demands of coalition partners (the nationalists? Or, perhaps worse, the Lib Dems?) in a reformed upper house. Starmer should demonstrate the political pragmatism for which he is now regularly praised (or excoriated) and renege on this unwise commitment.

One member of the House of Lords makes the New Statesman’s list. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the Old Etonian Primate of All England, Justin Welby. His consistent criticism of Conservative government since 2010 is noted, as are addresses to the Trades Union Congress and vocal opposition to the Illegal Migration Bill. Conservative and progressive critics of the Archbishop may scoff, but His Grace believes that Christianity has political implications, and he is willing to voice them.

The Tories underestimate Angela Rayner at their peril

Whilst secularists or Christian pessimists can indeed point to the continuing numerical decline of the Archbishop’s flock, the Church of England still retains more active members than any political party. Clergy and laity may skew left or right as individuals, but they remain a significant national group of motivated citizens, whose England-wide patchwork of parishes gives the Church a little base in every community. Indeed, the twenty-six diocesan bishops sitting in the House of Lords may often do rather better at speaking up for their respective regions than many of their Temporal peers.

A significant number of practising Christians are active in the Labour Party. The last two Labour premiers (No. 16, Sir Tony Blair; No. 37, Gordon Brown) took their religion seriously. Whilst Starmer is not a Christian, others on the New Statesman list are. Wes Streeting (No. 6) is the Shadow Health Secretary, and his own committed liberal Anglicanism has recently been noticed by the Spectator. Indeed, his religious commitment to a broad Church (the Spectator article details his refusal simply to denounce those with a more conservative theological attitude to sexuality) hints that this “unashamed Blairite” likewise understands the necessity of a Big Tent political party.

Further to the Left of Starmer or Streeting, Angela Rayner comes in at No. 8 on the list. Rayner is routinely underestimated both by some members of her party and by conservative commentators. As the New Statesman notes, she has successfully resisted efforts by the party leadership to sideline her, and her shadow cabinet position with responsibility for “the Future of Work” gives her a platform to advance legislation and policies in favour of poorly paid British workers. If the Labour Party does indeed refuse to fight the culture war, pivoting to the economy, Rayner will be an effective advocate and compelling public communicator. The Tories underestimate her at their peril.

The list also notes others on the fringes of the British Left to whom more attention should be paid. Roger Hallam, the founder of Extinction Rebellion and inspiration to Just Stop Oil, comes in at No. 34. Hallam’s model of ecological activism propagates an increasingly apocalyptic message of impending social collapse, a fevered vision of extreme sexual and gang violence. Commentators have begun to take note of the millenarian quality of this ideology. It is something of an embarrassment that the New Statesman fails to engage with quite how extreme — rightly or wrongly — Hallam and his acolytes are.

The final figure on the list is less disturbing than Hallam, but also an influential fringe voice. The New Statesman correctly judges that Aaron Bastani of Novara Media is more than just a one-time Corbyn outrider. Ben Sixsmith has already here at Artillery Row responded to suggestions that Bastani has a socially conservative streak. This is indeed too much to impute, but Bastani is a good example of low-hanging fruit for the Left: the marriage of Left wing economics and communitarian rhetoric.

Whether actual Blue Labour communitarianism is likely to achieve much in the next Labour government is still unclear. There are plenty of reasons for pessimism. An explicit, indeed doctrinaire, progressivism is likely to remain the majority credo in Starmer’s Labour. The party’s activist cadre skews clearly in this direction. Yet if the New Statesman is correct, and economic concerns are to be front-and-centre in their next election campaign and the likely Starmer government, then it is vital that those on the broad communitarian Left — within the party and without — get their ducks in a row.

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