Politics is a rough business. The worst job is the Leader of the Opposition. Sir Keir Starmer must be feeling the squeeze this morning as the Tories celebrate their win in Hartlepool, and left-wing Labour MPs collectively pile-on calling for a strategy change. Both the Tories and the Corbynista wing of the Labour Party feel vindicated. Here’s a few thoughts as to why that might be a mistake.
First, the Tories are ruthless in fostering support for their core voters. They don’t just do tis in their propaganda, but build on the massive bribes and bungs they are prepared to offer. Enough of the electorate are willing to establish their political convictions on the assets that they have or aspire to have. Rishi Sunak’s stamp duty bung, the holding down of interest rates, guarantees of ninety-five per cent mortgages, and the suppression of equitable property taxes all reinforce the bedrock of Conservative support.
Second, the Tories are the English Brexit party in all but name. Stoking antagonism with the EU, by spreading fears that there is a chance that he UK will return to the EU fold, is enough to make Tory supporters in England dig their heels deeper into the ground. Getting Brexit done was the rallying call, which has been replaced by never budging on Brexit. Recalcitrance is a virtue because it reinforces the sense of self-defined agency that is built on the home-owning dream.
Third, the more the Tories do well in England, the more nationalists in the other nations of the UK recoil and head in the opposite direction. We can now guarantee that we will see Scotland vote for independence, followed by Wales a few years later, and with Northern Ireland forming a deeper relationship with Dublin and the EU. The Tories are an English nationalist cult that goes unchallenged in our media, because newspapers like the Times and the Mail see themselves as leaders of a culture war which the BBC is too timid to challenge.
Finally, Boris Johnson paints in very simple colours. He presents himself as a man of the people, while allowing his narcissism and sociopathy to drive public policy. The cult of Boris is entirely wrapped around the self-defined exceptionalism of one person, Johnson himself. As with Trump in America, he can be defeated, but his hold on the Conservative Party is going to generate its own myths, much in the way that Thatcher became totemic for right-wing free-market liberals. Johnson is now going to be given free rein to do what he learnt to do in his Bullingdon Club days – act like a bull in a china shop.
So where does this leave Starmer and Labour? While many on the left are going to be calling for Starmer’s head, this is a monumental mistake, and the ignition of a civil war in the Labour ranks should be avoided if calm heads can take the lead and bring some context and perspective to the situation. Labour can’t hope to overturn the popularity of the Tories while they are fuelling a boom. But as many of us recall Gordon Brown warning, Tory booms always lead to a bust at some point.
The inflation of house prices gives the Tories a short-term advantage, but if interest rates start to go up, as the UK’s international trade goes down, while borrowing soars, then sober thinking might once more assert itself. The recklessness of Rishi Sunak in splurging billions of pounds on stamp duty cuts, while simultaneously planning for austerity2 will bring many back down to earth.
In response to this Labour must get down to the brass-tacks and shape a heavy-hitting economic analysis. Labour has to be the hard-headed realists. To drag over ever policy that asks is this value for money? Are we squandering our meagre reserves of capital when we should be investing and stimulating new growth? Labour needs to be as clear as President Biden. Trickle-Down economics does not work. Trade Unions are a force for good. Future prosperity won’t come from a restricted and narrow property market.
It is noted that Labour now does better in cities and metropolitan areas, where younger voters live lives that are increasingly precarious. The problem is that younger voters don’t go out and vote because they too often get enmeshed by a sense of fatalism. These should be the new heartlands for Labour. They are the places where the educated classes will congregate who will be driving the next industrial, ecological and social revolution. Our cities will be our engines of growth and innovation, and Labour has to be the leader of that movement.
Lastly, we really do need to stop erecting boundaries and differences between non-conservative thinking people. Social democracy has to be redefined as an inclusive and participative process. This won’t be handed down from above by the centralised state, but will be built-up from local people acting in progressive and purposeful alliances to get things done in their towns and neighbourhoods. Social democratic thinking has to be renewed around values of decency, respect and solidarity.
The alternative is that we will keep allowing the Tories to maintain their dominance in the minds of those who are seduced by the prospect of personal advantage, regardless of the actual effects this reduced access to wealth has on the rest of society. The breakup of the UK now seems ever more likely. One win in Hartlepool is not the sign of social renewal, but is a symptom of our collective social destruction.