This month marks a year since news broke of the parties in Downing Street. With hindsight, this revelation was to be the fulcrum on which the prospects of the Conservatives, and therefore Labour, turned. What seemed inconceivable 12 months ago is now looking inevitable. Labour is going to win the next general election.
But for a victory so longed for, it feels like one unaccompanied by a sense of hope. Instead, the message from Labour HQ seems reminiscent of a military government that has taken control after an unruly revolution – order must be restored. But at what cost?
The first step on the path to power for the party was to eject the losing left from its ranks. Candidates report being blocked over the most tenuous of transgressions. One candidate was disqualified for liking tweets. There are also other disturbing reports of leaking of party members’ contact details to anointed candidates before others, and leftwing MPs such as Apsana Begum being abandoned by party leadership to face personally motivated deselection campaigns. This engineering of selections isn’t a necessary evil: it is a voluntary one that denies party members and the public their democratic right to vote for a range of candidates. What is emerging is a party that has traded principle for power.
An extension of this purge has been to eradicate anything deemed too “radical” from the party’s policy offerings. The role that Labour has sketched for itself as a grownup party that brings “stability” could not be less suited to the times. Challenging the status quo is what people are in the mood for after the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the energy crisis. Instead of focusing on investment in a frail public realm, the party is singing the same tune of fiscal prudence as the Tories. It is distancing itself from angry, desperate strikers, just as the nation rises in historic organised objection to the status quo. Labour wants your votes and your funding, but not your dreams, your fears, your appeals for your future. In fact, anything that looks too close to the popular exuberance of solidarity is to be avoided, because that also looks too close to the prospect of change. Labour is not on the picket lines, in spirit or in body, but is addressing business leaders: at an event last week, Keir Starmer refused to commit to repealing the government’s proposed anti-strike laws, making sure the prawn cocktails of the gathered company went down a bit easier.
This aversion to meaningful change looks even more jarring when you compare Labour with its peers in Europe and the US. Joe Biden has moved closer to climate activism and tax justice, as well as higher public spending through the post-Covid economic recovery programme. The German Social Democratic party came to power after calling for a higher minimum wage and higher investment in upgrading public services. Even France is passing ambitious climate laws, banning some short-haul domestic flights. As the space expands for higher public spending, higher taxation and more investment in infrastructure, Labour is busy reassuring the financial services sector that it won’t be “soaked” with higher taxes.
Some of Labour’s retreat, both in outward ambition and internal standards, is the result of trauma inflicted by its defeat in 2019, by a decade’s rule by a Conservative party that seemed impossible to dislodge, and by a rightwing press that has so ruthlessly savaged successive Labour leaders. In order to win, the party has reverted to its safe space: 1997. The result is a limited and anachronistic policy offering, further constrained by the fact that the solutions to the crisis Labour will inherit involve some form of redistribution of power and wealth, nationalisation, stronger regulation, higher taxation and opening up of borders. All things that Labour recoils from in its fear of being painted as ideological.
But that stereotype of Labour was created by its enemies. By deciding that victory is only possible on the terms of its opponents, the party’s aim is to transform itself rather than the country. Starmer is crystallising into a strongman who has taken on this role with relish. He is rewarded for his authoritarianism by members of a media and business establishment happy to see Labour dispense with the romance of hope and change, and instead embrace the terms of their miserable arranged marriage with reality. Vested interests are happy to see Labour accept that, for millions of people, things will still be tough after a Labour win, but that’s the price of a Labour win.
The bloodless calculus of a centrist ruling class is that acceptable collateral damage is the best we can hope for. There will be no passion or pledges, only grownup acceptance of structures we cannot change. “The British people are conservative at heart, you see,” I am told, in the same tone that after 2010 I was told that Arabs are simply not ready for democracy.
The tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Labour can win on its own terms if it chooses to believe that it is fit for power because it is Labour. There is space for both competence and compassion. There is room to make the case for decent pay for a day’s work, investment in childcare, hospitals and care homes, an innovative education system, dismantling privatised utilities that gouge both employees and customers, human decency towards those, both here and overseas, without a home. These are not radical notions, but basic expectations of an incoming government after 12 years that have vividly demonstrated the jeopardies of frugality.
If victory means that Labour is winnowed down to a shape acceptable to the very rapacious interests it is meant to challenge, is it a victory at all – or a climb on to a winner’s podium built on a staircase of defeats?