Thursday 28 December 2023

2023 in Politics

Time to toot my horn. Looking back over the year, on balance most of the stuff argued on this blog has come to pass. With one exception.

Following the last general election, professional political understanderers embarrassed themselves about what Boris Johnson's victory meant. Labour faced extinction. The Conservatives could look forward to a decade in power. You don't need me to repeat anything else. Even in the aftermath of this calamity, one corner of the internet held fast to the conclusion the Tories were in long-term decline and had the analysis to back it up. Everything since has vindicated that argument, and nothing in 2023 has suggested otherwise. Even some Tories have tried reckoning with the realities of their predicament. With zero success.

Since Liz Truss disastrously swung by Number 10, the long-term trend and the conjunctural have closely intertwined. It was possible before Johnson's hubris brought us Partygate and for the Tories to win again in 2024, but the actions of both have sped politics up and accelerated the Tories' demise. And Rishi Sunak has done nothing to apply the brakes. At the beginning of the year, he committed his government to do absolutely nothing and he's stuck to his promise. By letting their crisis unfold unimpeded, the local government base got a battering and demonstrated - despite what Saint John of Curtice said at the time - that the Tory doom was almost upon them. Things were no better with parliamentary by-elections, though their barely hanging on in Johnson's old seat saw them switch to anti-environmental and pro-motorist messaging as if this could save their bacon.

As long argued here, if a strategy is discernible among
the crying and the panic, it's a reassertion of core vote concerns. Hammering the environment, attacking trans people, campaigning against refugees and migrants, and giving more money to the better off. All these are signs the Tories have given up trying to win over the undecided. And with Jeremy Hunt already announcing the date for the next budget, that suggests even bigger bribes are incoming. Not that it will help. The Tories are done and it's difficult to see how they might even begin a comeback, let alone make one.

The second concerns a forecast made three years ago. At a small online conference, I argued that Keir Starmer's strategies threatened to break up the core class coalition he'd inherited from Jeremy Corbyn. If he did not push policies with mass appeal that spoke to and articulated their interests, Labour's support would decompose. This was published by Political Quarterly, but has been revisited many times here since. 2023 also confirmed how right this argument was. In recent months, despite still enjoying strong polling leads over the Tories Labour's numbers have gone from hanging around the high to the low 40s, and its council by-election performance hasn't been stellar. With the consolations of spectacular parliamentary by-election wins at the Tories' and SNP's expense, some might think none of this matters. But it does. Starmer's repudiation or watering down of the pledges he was elected leader on has alienated millions of people. Most of these are still going to vote Labour at the election, but without any enthusiasm. And others have taken their votes elsewhere. It's no accident that the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have done so well this year.

When writing the paper I thought this might cause Starmer a significant issue in the medium time vis a vis the Tories. But as they have largely taken themselves out of contention, what this slight decomposition of the Labour vote has meant is a bump in support for the aforementioned parties, and setting themselves up nicely to do well out of the electoral opposition to a Starmer government. Again, people aren't about to start voting Tory again after the last 14 years. In other words, the consequences of Starmer's dispersal of Labour's new base will take place later rather than sooner. Though, to give the man credit, like his Tory counterparts he's doing his bit to speed the process up.

And so, political trends identified on this blog have continued to play themselves out. There is nothing new under the sun. But what did I get wrong in 2023? It was this: I gave Starmer too much credit that he would stick to his pledges. Sort of. Back in February, I reflected on his promises and where, if at all, he can be trusted to deliver. Since then the water has been muddied by the abandonment of more progressive policies and the £28bn/year on green modernisation is constantly briefed against. It is also now shackled to self-imposed fiscal rules set by the plagiarist Rachel Reeves, which will be wheeled out as an excuse not to do anything transformative. While the post on trusting Starmer noted how all Labour governments have had to be forced to make genuine concessions by labour movement pressure, even I was shocked by the scale of their retreat. With every passing day, Starmer and co make the positive case for their Labour government more and more fanciful.

Thinking ahead to 2024, it's obvious Labour are going to win an outright majority. But in their hubris they could drop another seat to the Greens. This time at Thangam Debbonaire's expense in the new Bristol Central seat. And if Aspire put someone up in Bethnal Green and Bow's successor seat, Rushinara Ali could be in trouble. The Tories are going to carry on as they are, hoping beyond hope more tax cuts and more meanness will carry them over the finish line. They will be looking back at 1992 with fondness, and believing a core vote strategy seemingly won 2019. And when defeat comes, the conclusion is going to be a lurch further right. Rather than trying to make political weather, don't be surprised if Starmer continues to tail the Tories on acceptable scapegoats.

One wishes this was not so, but there are reasons to be hopeful. The spike in strike days this year has led to a mix of modest victories and stalemates. Where workers have been defeated, these have not been strategic defeats. There is plenty of combativity left in the labour movement. And, most encouragingly, the swift emergence of an absolutely huge Palestinian solidarity movement has put the frighteners on establishment politics. Authoritarian Tory legislation against industrial action and protest haven't bitten yet, and given the wider mood is one of anger rather than despondency politics in 2024 could be a lot more interesting than the staid exchange of one set of establishment shills for another.

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