Sunday 27 August 2023

Preparing to Waste an Historic Opportunity

Is the next Labour government going to do nice things? A lot of social media users took the latest Jon Elledge piece as offering a big yes to that question. Which goes to prove even "media savvy" folks just read the headline without clicking through. The argument offered is much more subtle, a case of never judging an article by the tweet. Supposing Keir Starmer wins a decent majority at the next election, Labour can do pretty much what it wants. The impasse that we're at now, where Rishi Sunak can't do anything because of the fracturing among the Tory majority, has meant we've forgot what effective government can do and how it can determine the course of political debate.

Booting up the old memory banks recalls two things. It wasn't that long ago the Coalition government presided over things in this country, and though it was a lash up between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats it operated as an effective government. If you happen to define efficacy in terms of getting its legislative programme through over and above the content of what went on the statute books. They operated as a stable majority government that didn't suffer an especially large number of defeats. And indeed some might recall how that government did set the terms of political debate, with opposition and the media all singing from the same austerity hymn sheet. I think that's still pretty fresh.

The second recollection dredged up from the depths is what was said about Labour governments of the recent past who find themselves in this position. There was a view, an illusion propagated by Labour activists and ordinary Labour-supporting punters that Tony Blair was just saying right wing things so he could get into office. Once he was there he'd reveal his social democratic soul and undo the damage inflicted during the previous 17 years. Despite becoming master of all that he surveyed, what we got was around-the-edges tinkering. And having learned nothing, we saw it again as Gordon Brown limbered up to the premiership. "He was held back by Blair" went the fantasy. When he's in Number 10 we'll see some proper Labour policies. To be fair to Brown, he did nothing to invite these projections - especially when New Labour was as much his creation as Blair's and Peter Mandelson's. But he did get to nationalise some things.

Since winning the Labour leadership, Keir Starmer has repeatedly and in full public view shredded the pledges he stood on. Suitability for political office is best demonstrated by refusing to stand for anything, don't you know. And as if to underline the point, this weekend in the Sunday Telegraph Rachel Reeves announced there won't be any new taxes on the rich. That means no increase on the top rate of income tax, no capital gains tax, no mansion tax nor any specific wealth tax. Starmer is leaving nothing to chance. Like his predecessors, he can't be accused of making big promises nor of raising expectations.

Jon does concede that Labour might not use the space afforded them by the defeat of the Tories. And where his argument is useful is reminding his readers that Labour's voters are different to the Conservatives' reactionary base, and therefore these defeated constituencies can be ignored. Which is true, except Starmer's behaviour acts as though they are part of the coalition he wants to build. Whereas Jon looks forward to the bangers-on about Brexit, war on woke, etc. getting short shrift it's far more likely Starmer will carry on cleaving to this foul politics because it's the Daily Mail and friends going on about them. And this surrender to their framing is easy because it wouldn't disrupt his project. What you might call his authoritarian modernisation is chiefly concerned with restoring the authority of the state and its institutions, patching up the country's beleaguered political economy, and rescuing British capitalism from the verge of a legitimation crisis where the Tories have left it. Doing so will shift politics onto a more managerial terrain but leave all the fundamentals intact.

The problem this leaves Starmer with is despite raising no expectations and, indeed, having spent his leadership dashing them, his choice not to do anything to address persistent inequalities or glaring problems will be perceived as exactly that. No matter how many times he and Reeves repeat the "there is no money" line, it's not going to wash. And that's going to cause all kinds of problems that could well strike at the party's base itself.

Image Credit


David said...

I note The Guardian is not allowing comments on their report. I suppose it would help to get rid of the current crop of criminals, but otherwise there seems no point at all to Labour right now.

Jenny said...

Seems to me that Labour's plan is to replace the Tories as the natural party of government for UKcapitalism.

Blissex said...

«Suitability for political office is best demonstrated by refusing to stand for anything»

It is amazing that "The Guardian" and our blogger keep repeating this while instead Starmer has repeatedly and clearly stood up for many things, from NIMBYsm to Brexit to property ownership to rejection of low emissions.

«he and Reeves repeat the "there is no money" line, it's not going to wash»

The usual "tax and spend" labourist left thinks only in terms of that, but "pre-distribution" is something that the Conservatives, New Labour the LibDems have done very determinedly by increasing the negotiating power of property owners and employers, with little or no spending.

Giving more negotiating power to labor unions, to the unemployed, to buyers or renters, by changing laws and accounting rules and thus incentives can be done very cheaply. Chris Dillow has made a similar argument, even if I reckon it was flawed. Plus there is the "magic money tree" of the BoE, which has been used shamelessly in vast amounts to pump up property prices and rents as much as possible, to pursue the "wealth effect" on spending. It could be redirected to pursue the "wage effect" instead.

But of course there is no political will among the major parties for a rejection of thatcherism, and among that 30-40% of voters, mostly in the south-east, who have made a lot of money from it.

Blissex said...

«but otherwise there seems no point at all to Labour right now»

Then historic mission of New Labour is to ensure "There Is No Alternative", to provide continuity of thatcherism and upward redistribution with better management and less unpopular personalities.

For many millions of mostly southern property owners and for the City that is a very important point, worth literally fortunes to them.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Speaking as someone who lives in the SE, I would like to point out that property owners are actually quite well spread out across the country. While prices have risen more in the SE, they have risen everywhere proportionately. Owning a house is not what defines how you vote. Most Tory voters are from the petit and full-size bourgeoisie. Hence their predominance in rural areas and small towns. The swing votes and red wall is predominantly PB. Yes, many have houses, but the defining factor is that they are self-employed or owners of businesses, or work in a small business. Property value is an important asset for borrowing but plenty of people own homes who are NOT PB and who do NOT vote Tory. So, it isn't property ownership per se that counts. The home ownership is correlation rather than causation.

The problem for the Tories is that the PB are being adversely affected by economic events - especially high energy prices, and will be even more impacted by a downturn as much of their work is service related. Although they tend to be conservative, they have also been at the root of revolution in the past. Even property prices will start to fall, and eventually collapse because the bubble of debt has become unsustainable. Then all hell will break loose.