Sunday 16 August 2020

Waiting for Opposition

Another set of polls, another stubborn Tory lead. You can talk discuss why this is the case, but what about the how? What can Labour do that 65,000 deaths and an increasingly obvious second wave of infection can't? Whether you think the best tack to take is criticising the politics of the Tories' miserable failure, or go in for some colourless managerialism, Labour's strategy has to think about two things. How can we win over Tories voters, or failing that, discourage them from voting Conservative in the future, and how do we keep existing supporters on side.

Keir Starmer's latest piece in the Mail on Sunday should bear this in mind. The argument, such as it is, aims to place Boris Johnson's competence at the heart of the argument about schools reopening in September. Readers won't have failed to notice how the Tories have worked to blame/scapegoat teachers for keeping kids at home, instead of thinking creatively about how they might reopen. Keir also makes potted observations about Tory tardiness in handling the pandemic more generally. There's a few criticisms about their handling of the A-Level results fiasco (how likely are we going to see a repeat with this week's GCSE grades?), and this is paired with the schools issue to show how education is treated as an "afterthought". But that's your lot.

Nothing much to scare your average Mail reader there. Keir offers formally correct criticisms from a bland, managerial standpoint contrasting his Mr Competence to Tory uselessness. Therefore, if his audience doesn't like the Labour Party because it's too lefty or too remainy, presenting as a better administrator might improve his standing, with the party benefiting from reputational trickle down. By playing to well worn concerns even among Tories about Johnson's suitability on issues other than getting Brexit done, quiet but determined seriousness is the card Labour are playing. True, but in so doing he goes out of his way to do the government a favour by ignoring the health risks of a rushed opening. Despite what Gavin Williamson says, the risk of pupils passing Coronavirus to one another and taking it home to older family members while exposing teachers and school support staff is real enough - even if Keir, like the Tories, pretends it doesn't exist. Perhaps he's avoided it to dodge accusations of scaremongering, or it doesn't fit the "strong and stable" sensibility he's keen to cultivate.

Some will criticise Keir for writing in The Mail. If, for whatever reason, the most unhinged and reactionary sections of the bourgeois press are offering space to Labour politicians to make an anti-Tory case, then we should approach it instrumentally. The likes of The Mail, Express, Sun, etc. are the most powerful means the Tories have to cohere and organise their support. If there is an opportunity to disrupt its unity, sow a bit of discord, cut through the editorial bilge and address Tory voters directly, then we should take it.

This is secondary to the fact Keir's criticisms are astonishingly poor. In the age of big politics where everything is up for grabs, limiting yourself to nitpicking is just not good enough. To cohere a bloc of voters you need to attack opponents on competence and contest the politics. Unfortunately, Keir is even fluffing the line of attack he has chosen. In recent weeks we have seen evidence of egregious corruption, of government handing out cash to ragtag and bobtail outfits with no experience of manufacturing or supplying personal protective equipment, but do happen to be mates with Dominic Cummings. We've seen Robert Jenrick nod through planning applications after Richard Desmond donated (paltry) sums to the Tories, and government loans made to other billionaire donors. Why isn't Keir attacking the Tories on sleaze? Why is he determined to paint them well-intentioned but out of their depth? This will not win Tory voters over.

You might expect me to criticise Keir for offering anything but effective opposition, but how about Alastair Campbell? What a dismal state of affairs. We need strategically savvy, politicised criticisms. No ifs, no buts, no equivocation, to coin a phrase.

Image Credit


Shai Masot said...

Is Campbell preparing the ground for an early leadership challenge? David Miliband is back on manoeuvres. Maybe Starmer is too Tory-lite even for the Blairites.

Ken said...

We might need a politicised opposition, but we’re not going to get one.
Four more years of,
“What do we want?”
“”Competent managerialism!!”
Stirs the blood, no?

Blissex said...

«Some will criticise Keir for writing in The Mail. If, for whatever reason, the most unhinged and reactionary sections of the bourgeois press are offering space to Labour politicians to make an anti-Tory case, then we should approach it instrumentally.»

Our blogger is following the established practice of using "Tory" (with the crucial capital "T") as a synonym for Conservatives, but I would rather people used "Conservative" because the Conservatives may be the only tory party but they have a large whig component and there are another 2 whig parties (New, New Labour, LibDems). This point relates to the content here:

* The Daily Mail (and Daily Express) had some time ago a big change of editor, and the new editor is a moderate whiggish europhile, and is gradually (to avoid losing even more readers) becoming less “unhinged and reactionary”, while remaining a propaganda organ for "bourgeois" property and business interests.

* K Starmer's politics are entirely consistent with the new editorial direction of the "Daily Mail", presenting himself as a protector of those same "bourgeois" property and business interests, as you wrote recently (“a safe pair of hands that won't bring the Home Counties out in a cold sweat nor frighten the city boys”). Hard to imagine K Starmer saying, as B Johnson did, "F*ck busineess!".

Giving a space to K Starmer to appeal for votes on the Daily Mail seems to me part of that "respect" of which I wrote previously: “the whig press is fawning over him, the tory press is treating him with the respect due a fellow thatcherite (even if "soft")”.

Blissex said...

«How can we win over Tories voters, or failing that, discourage them from voting Conservative in the future, and how do we keep existing supporters on side.»

And those are the really two important questions, and this is one of the very few cases where both have them get asked. As I mentioned many times before I don't like the Mandelson Tendency explicit case that only getting tory voters to switch their vote matters, or the leftoid implicit case that it does not matter at all, because all that matters is singing the "Red Flag" and "El pueblo unido".

But as the previous paragraph implies, while the questions above are framed in electoral terms, what matters is the politics they portend.

As to that political groups tend to be based on political interests, and can be coalitions of different constituencies that share a common critical political interests (usually on the left), or coalitions that have separate but not-conflicting political interests (usually on the right).

In the case of the Conservatives my usual argument is that they are currently fundamentally a coalition of finance and southern property interests, plus a small bunch of social reactionaries (but most social reactionaries vote their property or finance interests well before their values). Those constituencies should be a significant but relatively small minority, and the Conservatives get to 42% only because some constituencies, like northern property interests and industrial and small business interests, vote Conservative out of habit even if they are getting screwed far more by finance and southern property interests than by proletarians.

For example the biggest problem of many small businesses is not harsh socialist taxes, or "uppity, unaffordable" employees, or "lazy, useless" scroungers, but huge rents and expensive borrowing costs, and the high risk of failure without a safety net, but they still vote Conservative because they are afraid of entirely imaginary "communist confiscation" or (less imaginary, as several trade unions are barely disguised guilds) "trade unions exploitation".

While the strategic plan of the right is an alliance of the upper and middle classes plus some gullible lower class members, run for the benefit of the upper classes, the strategic plan of the left must be an alliance of the middle and lower classes plus some progressive upper class members, as long as it is not run for the main benefit of the middle classes, but by emphasizing the common interests for decent wages and pensions, secure jobs, low cost housing, good public services.

Blissex said...

«Maybe Starmer is too Tory-lite even for the Blairites.»

My impression is that with his theoretical "10 points" commitment to some of the principles of corbynism he is too left-wing for them, just like they considered G Brown a borderline trot.

Or perhaps they are prisoners of their own hallucination that the only things that matter in winning elections are a charismatic leader and an europhile thatcherite programme, and given these New Labour would leap 20 points ahead of the shambolic Conservatives: since this has not happened, they came to the conclusion that after all K Starmer may not be not a charismatic leader, and should be replaced by proven electoral catnip like Chuka Umunna, David Miliband or Owen Smith.

Blissex said...

«“What do we want?” “”Competent managerialism!!” Stirs the blood, no?»

But there is a *political* point to “competent managerialism”: a significant minority of middle and upper-middle class voters have enjoyed 40 years of booming living standards (those “aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose”, and they think there is nothing wrong with the thatcherite system we have, they just want it competently managed (and perhaps a little less nasty, as long as taxes don't go up).

That's the main constituency that New Labour and New New Labour wants to appeal to. The political problem is whether enough of that constituency, absent a property crash, would switch to vote New, New Labour just because of promising a somewhat more competent management of thatcherism.

Blissex said...

«how do we keep existing supporters on side»

I'll repeat here that for the Mandelson Tendency that is not a desirable aim, because if a good chunk of Labour voters switch to the LibDems or otherwise to abstention, that will force for the future for Labour to only govern with the "moderating" influence of a coalition with the LibDems.
Indeed there have been (perhaps performative) arguments (by the usual suspects) that Labour will never win again without the LibDems:

For the Mandelson Tendency fanatics what matters is the type of politics that win (thatcherism, because "There Is No Alternative", "we are all thatcherites now"), not which party wins:
Tony Blair says he wouldn’t want a left-wing Labour party to win an election

Anonymous said...

Genius. Stridently attack a government in a newspaper a good 80 per cent of the readership voted for. Why not just call all Daily Mail readers morons? That'll win them over! No wonder Labour swept to an overwhelming victory in the GE. No, wait... something to do with saboteurs?

Blissex said...

«Stridently attack a government in a newspaper a good 80 per cent of the readership voted for. [...] That'll win them over! No wonder Labour swept to an overwhelming victory in the GE.»

And indeed just as Tony Blair himself promised, wooing thatcherite voters with the centrist thatcherite leadership of Keir Starmer did seduce them with the prospect of better managerialism, and resulted in a 20% polls lead for New, New Labour over the Conservatives. Centrist thatcherite managerialism wins, and always will!