A strange vacuum war of nothingness is raging within the Labor Party, centered primarily on Keir Starmer’s leadership. Apparently he’s boring, he’s uninspiring, he’s drifting, the Tories are sailing ahead.
It is a difficult time for him – the first major wobble in his leadership. Boris Johnson enjoys a poll among the vaccines. The pandemic means the prime minister has near-unchallenged access to the air waves. Starmer is now robbed of the pulpit, except with empty rooms, with zoom or with an empty chamber of commons.
He has no local election results to point out to show progress because they have been canceled. It’s hard to wrest the news agenda from the government as Covid is the only game in town. He cannot invite critics to chat within the party.
This void of activity causes the swirling criticism to reach a crescendo, although there is no real content to back it up. His speech this week on Labor’s economic policy was treated like a wet detonator. The guidelines were rejected. He was classified as uncharismatic. It was all a bit disappointing, apparently. And two things are certainly true: Labor HQ oversubscribed it. And you can hardly imagine a lot of families talking about it at the dinner table last night.
But there is another way of looking at things, which is positioning. And that gives a completely different picture. It’s not where we are now, it’s where we’ll be in two or three years.
Here’s one way it could play out. The pandemic ends and then the Tory austerity debate begins. There is hardly an economist on earth who thinks that austerity measures are the right thing in the short term. Most believe the government should take advantage of the low interest rates to borrow now and heal the scars of the past few months before repaying in the medium to long term when times are better.
But the Treasury Department is already making noise about spending cuts. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is clearly enthusiastic. Downing Street will be tempted to make financial responsibility a major dividing line with Labor. After all, it has worked very well for them in the past, not least after the 2008-2010 financial crisis. Johnson could start curbing public spending this year and then maybe be able to offer tax cuts before the next election. Economically it’s nonsense, but politically it’s an attractive timescale.
The problem for the Conservative Party is that things have changed since 2008. The rise of right-wing populism has helped undermine the fiscal principles of conservatism. Suddenly it was okay to damage – or, in Johnson’s words, even “fuck” the business – when it was fulfilling a political agenda. The state could participate in the market again. Indeed, debates over EU state aid rules that cap state subsidies have all but derailed the Brexit talks. Johnson himself was determined to announce an end to the austerity measures. The pandemic opened a floodgate for public spending. And it was crucial that Johnson won the election with a promise to former Labor voters, not least in the Red Wall, to “level” the country.
This is a historic change in the possibilities for progressive politics, created almost entirely by the right. Because of this, Joe Biden is currently trying to create a $ 1.9 trillion incentive when Barack Obama is barely able to manage $ 787 billion.
And yet the Tories are divided between their instincts and their promises. This is the strange place they were when they put their tanks on Labour’s lawn. Your MPs assume that the strap needs to be tightened. And your chancellor too. But that is not an attractive prospect for many of the people who voted for them.
For the time being, this debate is taking place in the abstract. But occasionally, like free school lunches, the news is very lively and immediate. That’s when the Tory Division comes to an end – Conservative MPs grappling with personal responsibility and market knowledge when the political winds no longer support it.
This is a reversal of the political dynamics we have seen in recent years, when cultural values overtook political and economic. It is therefore a dangerous place for the Tories. It turns out that she and the former Labor voters she tried on are no longer attuned to one another.
Starmer’s speech, on the other hand, opposed austerity in ways that Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Ed Miliband couldn’t. That is vital. One of the events that rocketed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership offer was his refusal, unlike any other candidate, to support the social law. But Starmer’s position undoes this Labor divide between his activist base and his leadership class.
This does not put him outside of general economic opinion, as it would have done in 2008. It puts him at the center. The international bodies like the IMF that once supported the Tory austerity program are now singing another anthem sheet. The work of Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds, combined with the damage caused by Brexit, enables Starmer to maintain this position while offering the olive branch of friendship to the line of business.
Maybe that’s not how it works. Perhaps the Tories will find a way to dampen the internal division they have on this matter. Perhaps the right-wing press and some clever government slogans will manage to distort Labor into a distorted position. However, this is a believable – and indeed probable – series of events. She founds a divided Tory party and a united Labor party.
Starmer’s speech may not have triggered the fireworks. But in terms of the long game, it put the party in an ideal position for the debate that will dominate the next election. Once you’ve gotten over the noise, he’ll keep making the right calls at the right time.