What is the secret of Labour’s success?
Is there a dark secret that Labour delegates know but must never share?
“We need to do things differently,” Rachel Reeves told the Labour conference on Monday. By “we”, of course, she didn’t mean anyone in the room. If there’s one thing that’s clear in Brighton, it’s that whatever problems there are in the world, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Labour Party.
And let’s face it, there isn’t. After all, Reeves’s address to conference marked the twenty-fifth in succession by a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, as the party continues the uninterrupted run in government that it has enjoyed since 1997. Seven straight general election victories. A period of hegemony exceeded only by the Whig administrations of the eighteenth Century.
No, as Reeves explained, the people who need to change are the Conservatives, a party whose repeated humiliations at the ballot box — the most recent, in 2019, was their worst election result since World War II, if you can believe that — are easily explained: they are awful people, and everyone hates them.
The conference has a strange air, like a Netflix series about a town that has a terrible secret that no one can speak of
“Conservative governments just didn’t care about schools like mine and the kids I grew up with,” Reeves said. Tories were “uncaring, short-sighted and out of touch.” And that’s why they’re out of power.
Except they’re not, are they? For all that Reeves talked about giving the country “a government that is on their side,” when the country was last asked, it was fairly clear whose side it was on.
The conference has a strange air, like a Netflix series about a town that has a terrible secret that no one can speak of. Something happened, a visitor learns, eventually. Something terrible. In 2019. And 2017. And a couple of other times, too. Ask more questions and the talkative man at the bar looks round and goes quiet. The landlord tells you he’s closing early. Labour is under new management, we’re told, but in a slightly cryptic way that doesn’t mention the old management.
Reeves certainly wasn’t going to get into a discussion about how it was that the “incompetent, in denial, careless and chaotic” Conservatives are enjoying their twelfth year in office, with a comfortable majority. She wanted to tell us about the economy.
“Our economy isn’t just lines on a graph, distant from most people’s lives,” she said, with the air of an Open University introductory lecture. “Our economy is about all of us. The places we live, the people we love, and the work we do. An intricate web in which we all play our part.”
Her theme was “the everyday economy,” a slogan that might be vapid enough to take off. To explain what it meant, Reeves invited us to look at the pandemic.
“It wasn’t the shareholders at outsourcing companies that got us through this crisis,” she said. “Our kids weren’t banging pots and pans on their doorsteps for management consultants.” She didn’t say whether shareholders in pharmaceutical companies could take a bow, or the people who designed and administered the incredibly efficient vaccine roll-out.
At Labour’s conference, Reeves had found the only group of people in Britain who were nostalgic for the Winter of Discontent
It all went down well in the hall, but so it should have done. Easy targets were attacked, difficult questions were left unmentioned. Private schools would be taxed, and so would private equity bosses. Tax loopholes would be closed. Companies that sold dud equipment during the pandemic would be pursued. You could get applause for quite a lot of that even at the Conservative conference.
Amazon would be made to pay tax, Reeves said, offering an idea that has never previously occurred to any politician anywhere in the world. “If you can afford to fly to the Moon then you can afford to pay your taxes here on Planet Earth,” she told her audience, slightly overstating the extent of Jeff Bezos’s astronautical achievements.
To ensure money was well spent, she said, Labour would “carry out the biggest wave of insourcing in a generation.” Born in 1979, Reeves is young enough to suggest with a straight face that doing things in the public sector will eliminate waste.
“I was born under Jim Callaghan’s Labour government,” she said. “Three happy months! But I wouldn’t see another Labour government until I turned eighteen.”
It was a joke, but an unintentionally revealing one. At Labour’s conference, Reeves had found the only group of people in Britain who were nostalgic for the Winter of Discontent, and who couldn’t see a link between it and the elections that followed. It’s another thing people don’t talk about around here.
Perhaps, before the conference ends, a delegate, overwhelmed by shame and complicity, will dash to the stage and yell that the party has lost four elections. But it’s equally possible they’ll be wrestled to the ground and carried off screaming, like Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green: “Jeremy Corbyn is a loser! Jeremy Corbyn is a loser!”
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