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Same old Labour

Monday 10 May 2021

Last week’s elections show that the political centre of gravity is shifting towards social conservatism matched by high public spending. In this new landscape, Keir Starmer is nowhere


“He’ll be gone by Christmas”: who now remembers the flurry of speculation last summer about Boris Johnson’s future in Number 10? Still ailing after his near-fatal bout with Covid, generally exhausted by the government’s battle against the pandemic, struggling with his personal finances, the prime minister (it was repeatedly whispered) would throw in the towel by the end of 2020.

How very different the political landscape looks in the wake of Thursday’s elections. Even after weeks of headlines about his feud with Dominic Cummings, the wallpaper in his Downing Street flat and alleged Conservative “sleaze”, Johnson’s party added 13 councils and 235 councillors in England, held their own in Scotland and gained five seats in the Welsh Senedd, and – most spectacularly – capsized Labour’s collective psyche by winning the Hartlepool by-election. 

Tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech will set out the next steps for a government that enjoys a working majority in the House of Commons edging close to 90. It will be a grim occasion for Keir Starmer, whose own future as leader of the opposition has been called into question since it became clear quite how badly his party had performed last week.

The Labour leader has explanations to hand, if not excuses: these were plague elections, fought in exceptional circumstances with very limited scope for normal campaigning; the success of the vaccine roll-out appears to have encouraged voters to reward incumbents (to Labour’s benefit, please note, as well as to the Tories’: Mark Drakeford held on to the Welsh assembly, as Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham did to the London and Greater Manchester mayoralties respectively); and – lest we forget – Starmer has had little more than a year to start clearing up the wreckage left behind by Jeremy Corbyn after the general election catastrophe of 2019.

Above all, his allies lament the impossibility of gaining political traction or even a hearing during a pandemic. As one Shadow Cabinet member puts it, comparisons with the Labour leader’s role model, Clement Attlee, are instructive: “When he won in 1945, Attlee had already been a very visible part of the wartime government – as had the likes of Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Dalton. You can see now why Boris was so keen to rebuff Keir’s attempts to establish some sort of cross-partisan forum to fight Covid. There was never going to be any sharing of the limelight – and it paid off.”

One would have sympathy for at least some of these rationalisations, were it not for Starmer’s unbelievably callow handling of the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle over the weekend. Having initially promised to take “full responsibility”, the Labour leader then appeared to delegate a fair share of the blame by sacking Angela Rayner as party chair – or so it was spun on Saturday night. 

By the following morning, Ian Murray, the shadow Scotland secretary, was telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge that – on the contrary – Rayner had been given a “significant promotion which takes her from the back office to the front”. This was toe-curling stuff, a desperate attempt to conceal a furious row between Starmer and the party’s elected deputy leader. 

In the end, and after much to-ing and fro-ing, Rayner was given the Cabinet Office portfolio, which means she will be up against Michael Gove, and has also been granted the titles of shadow first secretary of state and shadow secretary of state for the future of work, and use of the swivel chair at weekends. 

All right, not the swivel chair. But this arrangement bears all the signs of a serious political domestic that required urgent patching up. Rachel Reeves takes over as shadow chancellor, and has the potential to be a formidable adversary to Rishi Sunak. Wes Streeting is a fine choice as shadow secretary of state for child poverty; likewise, Deborah Mattinson who is set to become the party’s new director of strategy.

But the shine was taken off these appointments by the briefing wars on Saturday and Sunday, suggesting that Starmer had tried, and failed, to move Lisa Nandy from her post as shadow foreign secretary. In sum: the Labour leader contrived to look both vindictive and weak.

Yet all this is froth on the surface of Labour’s true problems, the deepest of which lie in what oceanographers would call the hadopelagic zone of politics (20,000 feet and below). At present, the party is engaged in a war between two forms of nostalgia: a longing for the doctrinal purity of Corbynism and the sacred text of the 2019 party manifesto versus a no less passionate yearning for the strategies and centrism of the New Labour era.

Both sides are wrong. Having steered the party to its worst general election defeat since 1935 and compelled the Equality and Human Rights Commission to investigate Labour over racism against Jews, Corbyn should be regarded only as a terrible warning to the party never again to elect such a reckless ideologue as its leader.

But it is no more productive for Labour to hark back wistfully to Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 and hope to copy him point-for-point like a 1990s retro band. True, Blair is by far the most successful leader the party has ever had and remains a compelling figure in national public life (it was, after all, his idea to spread out the vaccine schedule, so that more people could receive the first dose more quickly). But the formula required to wrest power from the Tories a quarter century ago is not applicable today. How could it be?

Opposition parties prevail when they ask the right questions. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher grasped that there were three principal challenges facing the country: economic turmoil, trade union power, and the threat of Soviet communism. Eighteen years later, Blair saw with no less clarity that Britain craved something new: a hybridised government that promised both economic competence and social justice.

In 2021, we are witnessing yet another realignment – and one that Boris Johnson understands instinctively, if not dogmatically. Although the Conservative Party has been in power continuously for 11 years (alone, or as part of cross-party alliances), its offer to the electorate today is unrecognisably different to what David Cameron promised in 2010.

In the heyday of the so-called Tory “modernisers”, the explicit strategy was to detoxify the party of its reactionary image and to present the voters with a blend of social liberalism and economic discipline. To put it crudely, with Cameron in Number 10 you would get gay marriage and austerity. That was enough to nudge the party into office in coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010 and to win the Tories an outright majority in 2015. 

Yet one of the principal consequences of that election victory six years ago was a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union – which led, in turn, to the vote for Brexit in 2016, the fall of Cameron and the purging by stages of what remained of his modernising clique. What Johnson and Gove intuited during the Vote Leave campaign (with a little help from Dominic Cummings) was that the centre of political gravity was shifting fast, away from where Cameron, George Osborne and their allies had planted their standard since taking over the party in 2005.

Battered by the long-term pathologies of globalisation and the more recent hammer blows of the financial crash and its aftermath, more and more voters wanted to hear, first, that they were being listened to, and, second, that the government would stop blaming them for the folly of bankers and start helping them making ends meet, find work, be more than economic serfs.

In 2016, Theresa May had a go at addressing their concerns in her “burning injustices” speech in Downing Street, and continued to make promises to the “just-about-managing” (or “JAMs”). But – conspicuously unable to get Brexit through the House of Commons – she was replaced in 2019 by Johnson who was altogether more brutal, and successful, in his methods.

The new PM spoke of “levelling up”, a transformation of the UK’s infrastructure, a world-class NHS, and a social care system that was no longer a cause for national shame. His taste for big spending (and, by implication, big borrowing) completely overturned the Cameron-Osborne orthodoxy. But the deep doctrinal significance of his plan for fiscal revolution was obscured by the pandemic, which made a huge public expenditure package, financed by borrowing, a matter of national necessity rather than a political choice.

In this respect, there is still a confrontation ahead between Sunak, who remains fundamentally wedded to the pre-Brexit fiscal constraints, and his boss, who does not (see last week’s Tortoise Take for more on this). However new and shiny the Chancellor looks, he is, in fact, the defender of the old orthodoxy in this fight. It is Johnson, with his itch to deploy the national credit card, that is the radical. And, for now, the PM is unequivocally in the ascendant.

As for cultural matters: I have been assured for more than 20 years that “Boris is a social liberal”. That may be true of his private conduct and, to some extent, of his tenure as Mayor of London. But these days – when it counts – he is leading a government that unambiguously embraces social conservatism. 

Look at Priti Patel, mobilising the Royal Navy in her determination to stop refugees in dinghies paddling their way over the Channel. Look at Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, instructing museums and artistic institutions to “conserve and preserve our heritage” against the supposed armies of the “woke”. Look at Number 10, seeking to impose chairs at Ofcom and the BBC who will pursue a more traditionalist agenda.

Such is Johnson’s reading of the times in which we live: fiscal extravagance matched by social conservatism. It is much too early to say whether or not this combination will succeed, not least because populist governments such as this one tend to be very bad at getting stuff done (the vaccine roll-out is the exception that proves the rule, owing at least as much to the efficiency of NHS primary care trusts as to ministerial acuity). When jab-induced euphoria fades and unemployment soars, this regime will become much more vulnerable.

But – for now – the transformed Tory offer (reduced to its essentials: left on spending, right on culture) has clear electoral appeal, especially in those parts of the country that feel left behind and ignored by “London”: less the place itself, than the idea that it has come to represent. What millions of voters have come to resent is not so much the capital city (full, after all, of its own pockets of extreme deprivation and injustices) as a cluster of elites, mistrusted institutions, unsympathetic media and remote corporations.

If this sounds as if it has something in common with Donald Trump’s politics, that is because it does. But there are two crucial differences. First, Johnson, for all his foibles and flaws, is not actually deranged. He has yet, for example, to advise voters to inject themselves with bleach as protection against Covid, for which we should all be grateful.

Second, he faces an opponent who, it has become horrendously clear, has no plan at all. Trump’s electoral adversary did, and he won. We’ve now got to know both the new president and the Labour leader a little better. Mr Starmer, you’re no Joe Biden.