BOris Johnson’s government is in trouble. Since Rishi Sunak’s spring declaration, whispers from Downing Street suggest a mood of panic and a continuing lack of responses to the steepest decline in living standards since records began. The government’s so-called central “race to the top” project is now nowhere to be found. Johnson’s last brief spurt of intent and seriousness ended when he compared Ukrainians to Britons who voted to leave the EU (and, true to form, then half-apologized via anonymous source). In the next election, it looks like the Conservatives’ pitch to the electorate will be singularly cheap and nasty, based on an exaggerated cut in income tax and an attempt to rekindle the spirit of Brexit, combined with attacks against a far bigger target than Labour: social liberalism and leftist ideas in the wider culture, which conservatives are already frantically demonizing as a nascent “woke” revolution that must be stopped.
That doesn’t mean the Conservatives’ formidable knack for crushing the opposition won’t once again work wonders. But at the heart of the public mood, it looks like there could be a growing awareness. Here we are, almost 15 years after the first tremors of the financial crash and six years after the Brexit referendum, and what has fundamentally changed? The disgrace of partygate – which may soon return with a vengeance – has made it clear that those in power continue to be arrogant and out of touch. People’s daily struggles are getting worse. The effects of inflation on the public sector and continue to hack local services means that austerity will continue. After long years of political turbulence, we have the dark feeling of being back at square one.
Under these circumstances, Labor should do just fine. And yes, Keir Starmer and his party are consistently ahead in opinion polls, while Labor figures seem to have found newfound confidence, backed by some strong policies: a one-off tax on energy companies and the $28 billion pounds the party says it would spend on government every year on a quasi-Green New Deal. But the party leadership does not feel insurgent or even particularly energized. Starmer never says anything surprising or even interesting, but instead comes across as a calm and uninspiring alternative to Johnson’s incompetence and flamboyance. Given some of the people who gave him advice, it’s no surprise there are echoes of New Labour. But while Blair, Brown et al were full of ambition and drive, it all smacks of the party circa 2005, when its campaign slogan has been “Britain forward not backward”, and he tried to curry favor with what we would now call “red wall” voters with a bundle of half ideas called the “respect agenda”.
What is Labour’s essential story about Britain? Since the New Year, Starmer bragged its so-called “contract with the British people” based on three abstract names: “security”, “prosperity” and “respect”. This supposedly defining idea tends to be fleshed out with simple lines that cry out for clarity (“if we work hard, we should also be entitled to job security”), or bland assertions that few would argue with. (“Everyone should have the opportunity to thrive.”) Very occasionally, he manages a bit more emotional and inspiring register, which he managed in January, when his answer to Sue Gray’s initial report on the breaking of the rules in Downing Street included a moving line about the law-abiding majority who ‘saved the lives of people they are unlikely to ever meet’ and ‘the deep public spirit and the love and respect for others that has always characterized this nation at its best”. But this tone is never really sustained or developed. The main members of the Shadow Cabinet tend to appear cold and robotic; Starmer seems to have resolved to offer the conservatives as small a target as possible.
Thanks to a caricature of voters in the kind of seats that swung from Labor to Conservatives in 2019, and an understandable willingness to leave Corbynism behind, the most vivid Labor conception of a national narrative has so far tended to involve flags, the queen and military tributes. But what the party needs to do, repeatedly, is tell a much richer story about the country it wants to lead.
Whether Starmer and his allies have the rhetorical and emotional range to do so is a moot point, but they could try. Building on themes they’ve already at least alluded to, their basic argument might be that Britain isn’t as divided and resentful as some people would have us believe, and that the pandemic has made it. proven: we always collectively create crises, and they bring out the best in us. At this point, a fair bit of anger should creep in, along with a point about the new hard right: powerful elements of the Conservative Party, strident voices in the media, and Nigel Farage and his ilk.
Brexit is done. Their renewed drive to ignite an American-style culture war and provoke endless fighting with “woke” enemies is distasteful, divisive and distinctly anti-British; given that it also tends to involve climate denial, it also directly threatens the future of our children. We all know where our undoubted national talents need to be focused: on a green revolution, children going to school hungry, bad employers and public services that constantly seem on the brink of a new crisis. The problem is not just the incompetence of conservatives, but the fact that the wrong kind of people are in charge: too privileged to understand people’s daily struggles, and too engrossed in failed right-wing thinking to take us elsewhere.
You can wrap that kind of story in red, white, and blue if you like. The bottom line is that it would update a narrative that has served Labor well in the past, about national promise and potential stifled by old-fashioned conservatism, and the need to think ahead. In 1945, work noted that “the nation needs a formidable overhaul, a great program of modernization and re-equipment of its dwellings, its factories and its machinery, its schools, its social services”. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson warned of the dangers of nostalgia, and said he would replace the rule of an “Edwardian establishment” with “government of the people by all the people”. In 1994, Tony Blair was point out that “our system of government has become obsolete, our economy has been weakened, our people have been under-educated, our welfare state and public services have decayed… Our politics need not be like that. Our country doesn’t need to be like that. In very different times, most of these words ring true once more.
Again, looking back to the 20th century only gets you so far. Compared to its past, the electoral hurdles Labor now faces are enormous, and the imperative to cooperate with other parties is something it needs to think about – and talk about – a lot more. But the foundations of his position are obvious. For a long time, the excuse and justification for the cautious and defensive attitude of Starmer and his allies seems to have been that they were establishing their authority and waiting for the right moment to strike. It’s here, isn’t it? As the Conservatives flounder and fail, and the bigger picture grows increasingly daunting, the opposition must find clarity, energy and urgency, before another opportunity fades away.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist. To listen to the John Politics Weekly UK podcast, search for “Politics Weekly UK” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes every Thursday