A common complaint across all non-Tory politics at present is this: why can’t anyone mount an effective opposition against this shambles of a Conservative government? A lot of fire is directed at Keir Starmer, so let’s start with him and his party as to why it seems almost impossible to put up any kind of effective opposition to Boris Johnson and his crew.
Starmer has two issues as I see it. One, he is inexperienced. He only came into the Commons in 2015 and wasn’t really involved in party politics at all, at least as far as I’m aware, before he stood for parliament. At least, this is how I’m interpreting some of the mistakes he makes. He seems undercooked a lot of the time. But to be fair, a big part of why this is falls to the second issue, which is much larger.
Keir Starmer isn’t sure what to do now because the Labour movement as a whole isn’t sure what to do now. If you strip down a lot of the Progressive Alliance talk, you get to one wish that psychologically underpins it all – that Labour becomes something analogous to the Democrats in America, a very large tent political party that acts as a receptacle for every voter who doesn’t like the main right-wing party for whatever reason, which in this case is of course the Conservatives. This would mean everyone who is currently a Lib Dem, a Green, or even a disaffected Tory could not only vote for Labour, but even join the party.
This would take Labour a long way from where it has been in the past, even during the New Labour years. In order to get your head around this, imagine a Labour party that would not only welcome Rory Stewart, it would be a no-brainer for him to join. Okay, now imagine a Labour party in which Rory Stewart could become the leader. This would amount to something much bigger than a Clause IV moment for Labour. They would be renouncing socialism once and for all. They would have to become something akin to a centrist liberal party, something they have always assiduously resisted. To become ‘not the Tories’ would be a massive step for the party, unprecedented in their history.
And it’s one I don’t think any of the members, whether they are on the left or the right, really want to make. At least, not yet. Within Labour there is always this sense that if the party was to find its ‘true self’ again, having lost it somewhere along the way, people would vote for them again in great numbers. They see Wilson and Blair as having won by managing to re-invent the Labour party for the times they lived in, changing it just enough to keep it within the historical parameters of what the Labour party had always been, at least from a spiritual perspective.
Can they do this again? The problem is, I don’t think so. I think they probably need to radically change to win another majority on their own steam. Yet there are not even close to enough people within the Labour party ready to give up the old time religion yet. Maybe after a few more general election losses, should they occur, Labour people will be willing to think about other options. For now, they are going to cling to the idea that they can win without fundamental changes to what the party is and who it represents.
This is why Starmer seems so deer in the headlights all the time. His game remains what it has been from the start of his leadership: look smart, distance yourself as much as you can from the Corbyn era without making huge changes to what the Labour party actually is and then hope the Tories self-destruct. That’s it – that’s the plan. Labour can only win next time if people are so sick of Johnson and the Tories, they vote Labour out of spite. Perhaps Starmer and his people think that’s the only way Labour can win next time anyhow. Perhaps they are right.
As for other parties of opposition, it’s difficult to see how they don’t in the end make Tory government more possible as opposed to less. I suppose the Lib Dems aren’t trying to take over from Labour as the main party of the centre-left in the UK any longer, as they have been for intermittent periods throughout the last 20 years. They’ve kind of given up on all that and now are focused on a group of Tory-held seats in the SE of England, running seemingly on local issues, in particular housing.
Of all the leftish opposition parties, only the Lib Dems don’t seem to be in Labour’s way at present. It’s hard to see how the Greens do anything other than take votes off of Labour. Now, I’m not telling them not to do that – if people want to have a Green party, that is fair in a democracy. And those people who join the Greens don’t need to prefer a Labour government necessarily. I’m only pointing out how difficult all of this has become. We have a Labour party that won’t change enough to make the other parties of opposition stand down, and so, they stand in the way of Labour forming a government. And on it goes.
To summarise, Starmer has options, sure, but they are all pretty close to impossible for him to enact. So, he plays it safe in the hopes he and his party squeak through somehow. One day, British politics will be different. I hope to God we don’t have to wait too long for that change to happen.
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Surely another big part of it is that Boris is the most left-wing Conservative party leader since, um, Heath, I guess? Cameron was centre-left on society but right-wing economically; you can’t put a fag paper between Cameron and Johnson on social issues, and while you might question the details of raising National Insurance, the headline is that a Tory PM just whacked up tax to spend more on the NHS.
That really does leave Starmer with almost nowhere to go. What’s he supposed to do — how does a Labour leader attack a Conservative PM for taxing and spending? Either he claims that it’s not enough and Labour would raise taxes even more — not necessarily a net vote-winning proposition — or he has to try and explain why this is the wrong tax to raise and he’d raise a different tax instead and, well, you know what you’re doing when you’re explaining.
I think that the only way for Labour to distinguish themselves from the Johnsonite Tories on tax is to argue for fairer taxes, rather than higher taxes. Going back to Harold Wilson, he used the “Pound in your pocket” idea in the context of devaluation, but it could equally be used as a soundbite for fairer taxation: The pound in your pocket buys exactly the same if you earned it by working as an employee, or as unearned income from rents or share dividends, or as capital gains, so it should be taxed the same. It would mean raising income tax rates on unearned income (i.e. the unearned income surcharge), increasing rates of capital gains tax, and removing the additional tax-free allowances. Historically, the country has accepted 40% Inheritance Tax, 55% tax on pensions above the lifetime limit, and a 60% marginal rate of income tax through withdrawal of the Personal Allowance above £100k annual income, so there shouldn’t really be that strong a reaction.