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The British Irreducible: Towards a Labour Victory?

The British Irreducible: Towards a Labour Victory?
 Colm Murphy
Lecturer in British Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

The British are driving on the left... The UK general election, which elects the 650 members of Parliament, originally scheduled for January 2025, has been brought forward to July 4th by Rishi Sunak. After 14 years in power, the Tories have reason to be worried as polls are unfavorable to them: Labour is expected to win 45% of the vote, leaving the Conservatives with between 20% and 25% of voting intentions, while the far-right Reform UK should stand at 12%. Conversely, there is great hope for Labour. Their new chairman, Keir Starmer, seems to be generating enthusiasm among voters. What would be the consequences of a political shift in the House of Commons, for the UK and for Europe? And how can we understand the British dynamic that seems to run counter to trends elsewhere in Europe? Interview with Colm Murphy.

Who is Keir Starmer? How can he be positioned politically between the legacy of Tony Blair and that of his controversial predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn?

Starmer is a former human rights lawyer and senior civil servant. He entered parliamentary politics relatively late by becoming a Labour MP in 2015 when he was in his early fifties. As a result, he is ideologically ambiguous, with a relatively thin paper trail as a Labour politician. There is evidence of Starmer’s youthful radicalism – including writing for an obscure Trotskyist journal in the 1980s. But there is also a clear behavioural pattern of attempting to reform establishment institutions from within, such as his stint as Director of Public Prosecutions from 2008 to 2013 – with all the compromises that entails.

Once in parliament, Starmer was initially seen as ‘soft left’, a loose term for those left of New Labour but distinct from the Corbynites on both electoral strategy and policy. However, Starmer has since ditched his ‘soft left’ leadership pledges from 2020 (such as abolishing tuition fees). He has also become increasingly reliant on Labour’s ‘right’ factions internally. While his party’s manifesto in 2024 still contains recognisably radical proposals (strengthening workers’ rights, clean power by 2030, taxes on private schools) it is in places deliberately obscure, especially over public spending.

Is the vote in his favor, as many commentators say, a punishment for the Conservatives after 14 years in power and the difficulties of  Brexit, or a genuine vote of support?

2024 is shaping up to be a ‘punishment election’, as The Economist put it. Incumbent governments are struggling across the West after the shocks of the early 2020s (the pandemic, Ukraine) and their inflationary and polarising consequences. The ‘cost of living crisis’ in the UK, which is depressing support for the government, is part of a wider trend.

However, the scale of the collapse in Conservative support is also due to the profound failures of their governing projects. The list is sobering: the consequences of austerity from 2010-15, including the running down of the welfare state before a generation-defining pandemic; the failure to return to sustained real wage growth after 2008; the disastrous management of expectations on immigration control (immigration numbers have soared after Brexit); the fiscal recklessness of Liz Truss; and Sunak’s paucity of legislative achievements.

The Conservative government has also been remarkably unstable – with three leaders since the last election – and become associated with sleaze and hypocrisy.

The Conservative government has also been remarkably unstable – with three leaders since the last election – and become associated with sleaze and hypocrisy. In combination, this has delivered the party not only a catastrophic polling deficit, but also dire ‘fundamentals’ in the attitudinal polling, including plummeting ratings on economic ‘competence’ and for Sunak personally.

Saying that, Starmer’s Labour has taken advantage of these weaknesses. The party’s electoral strategy has been very focused on crucial swing voters and their key issues, such as the cost-of-living crisis and the NHS. Starmer’s own ratings, while not spectacular, are comparatively better than other recent leaders for both parties, and they have improved over the campaign. Some of that is due to a relatively more favourable media environment than the one his predecessor, Corbyn, faced. Nonetheless, any interpretation of the electoral success which gave no credit to Starmer’s leadership would be in my view not be credible. 

How can we understand Rishi Sunak's strategy in advancing the election? What is the Conservatives' record after fourteen years of reign?

The Conservatives do not have a strategy: that is their problem. They have attempted to develop various strategies, but these have proven to be insubstantial or misconceived, and have collapsed under pressure. A telling example is Sunak’s decision to champion his proposed smoking ban for young people as a flagship legislative achievement, just days before he then abandoned it to dissolve parliament for the election. Indeed, the government’s actions in recent months – such as their tortuous attempt to deport migrants to Rwanda – had a whiff of panic. The election campaign has been similarly confused, with too many clashing messages (Starmer doesn’t stand for anything but he’s also a dangerous socialist?), and gimmicky policies (such as national service for 18-year-olds). The party’s core offer is overly reliant on tax cuts, which are less appealing in a context of public service dysfunction and harder to sell when the tax burden has risen significantly under the Conservative government.

The incoherence should not be that surprising. To a large extent, the Conservatives’ problems are policy problems (waiting lists, housing inequality, stricken refugees crossing the Channel, bankrupt councils), and thus relatable to the failure of their key agendas since 2010: austerity, Brexit, and ‘levelling up’. Consequently, they have managed to alienate key sections of the electorate with radically divergent preferences, all of whom have alternatives to choose (Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and Reform).

Why is the UK experiencing a dynamic opposite  to that of the rest of Europe?

It is and it isn’t. We should remember that the UK is similar to much of western Europe (and the United States) in that the incumbent party is suffering poor ratings and struggling electorally. A sharp spike in inflation and energy costs will do that! 

But it is true that the UK’s swing to the left looks like an outlier when compared with the European elections, particularly in western Europe. This is partly because the severity of austerity in the 2010s opened more political space for arguments on reducing inequality and reinvesting in public services. It is also because generational effects mean that the electorate is trending liberal on certain questions (e.g. immigration).

But it is true that the UK’s swing to the left looks like an outlier when compared with the European elections, particularly in western Europe.

Finally, it is a product of the electoral system, which rewards parties whose vote is "efficiently" distributed across marginal seats rather than piled up in safe seats (Labour in 2024, the Conservatives in 2019, the SNP in 2015), and brutally punishes parties that lose votes simultaneously to their right and left flanks (the Conservatives in 2024).

Health is one of the main concerns of the British people, and the public service appears to be in a dire state: what solutions could Labour offer to address the National Health Service crisis? 

Labour have chosen to make reviving the NHS one of its five core "missions", and one of its first "steps" in the manifesto is to create 40,000 more hospital appointments a week, paid for through abolishing tax loopholes. This is not surprising. The NHS is one of the top issues for the electorate. Labour have long led its opponents on the issue, and in recent elections have promised to "save the NHS". Health policies also appeal to party members, who award the NHS deep symbolic significance given its origins in the mythologised 1945-51 Labour government.

However, public spending experts argue that demographic trends render Labour’s current funding policy radically insufficient to maintain and rebuild NHS services over the medium term. Labour have promised no return to "austerity". As a result, they place much hope on "reform" to find efficiencies, and pray for economic growth to deliver more tax revenues, which can then be funnelled into healthcare. In the absence of that, Starmer’s Labour will have to choose between three difficult options: underfund the NHS, break fiscal rules, or raise more taxes.

Is Labour now a "centrist" party, having made the transition from protest party to party of government? What is its economic program?

Starmer has moved the party towards the median voter on certain symbolic policy questions. Labour’s economic programme partly reflects this. It is a deliberately orthodox approach to macroeconomic policy, which binds the government to fiscal rules that promise balanced current spending and a falling debt-to-GDP share in five years. The party did this to rebuild their economic "competence" ratings: an approach that seems to have worked. They also argue that "stability" will lead to higher growth through renewed investment. Market actors and commentators are sceptical this will be large, however.

Labour’s policy here draws explicit inspiration from Bidenomics in the United States, albeit with less money.

However, beneath the surface the picture is more complicated. In a recent landmark speech, the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has advocated "securonomics", an approach which involves a more interventionist industrial policy and a more "strategic" approach to trade and monetary matters. This is matched by related promises for clean power by 2030, and for a "new deal for working people", a package of pro-worker policies like banning "fire and rehire" and repealing anti-trade union legislation.

Labour’s policy here draws explicit inspiration from "Bidenomics" in the United States, albeit with less money. It also draws on the direction of the party’s debates about economic policy after its defeat in 2010, which were characterised by critiques of Blair and Brown’s relaxed approach to globalisation and financial deregulation.

Marrying an interventionist, green, and workers rights agenda with a headline message of economic caution, while also somehow finding the money to fund collapsing public services, will be immensely challenging for the government. It is likely that there will be internal tensions between government ministers and within the parliamentary party. Starmer’s government will probably have to make difficult choices, when push comes to shove.

What is Labour's position on the EU? On Brexit and its possible reversal? What can we expect from the forthcoming EPC meeting in London?

Labour have deliberately avoided talking much about the EU. There is something of a conspiracy of silence about Brexit among the main parties. The leadership have signalled a desire to seek a slightly closer relationship on particular issues, such as veterinary agreements and security cooperation. However, the UK in Changing Europe think tank has dismissed these as tinkering around the edges – even if the EU should agree to them. The bigger change will probably be one of tone, especially compared to the Conservative government under Boris Johnson. The government of the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, is said to be particularly optimistic for a reset in relations, to build on the progress made by Sunak’s Windsor agreement – one of his government’s few achievements.

What is Keir Starmer's position on British support for Ukraine, and does he intend to continue the Conservative policy of full support?

Expect a Starmer government to continue existing UK policy of supporting Ukraine diplomatically, financially, and militarily, which Labour has consistently supported in opposition.

What is the Labour leader's position on Gaza? How does the renewed Labour differ from Corbyn's positions, and how can it instill confidence in international interlocutors?

Labour has struggled over its Gaza position. Starmer’s initial response to October 7 was to support Israel’s right to defend itself. He seemed to imply (in a disastrous radio interview) that Israel could commit war crimes like withholding water from civilians, but he rowed back from this later. The party contains tendencies and actors sympathetic to Israel and especially the innocent civilians killed and hostages taken by Hamas. However, Israel’s extremely violent response has provoked uproar from other parts of the party and the broader left, and from some Muslim voters (who overwhelmingly support Labour). Several independents and challenger parties are now contesting safe Labour seats and highlighting Gaza – although most are unlikely to make much of an electoral impact.

Since October, and after much painful contestation internally including controversial votes in parliament, Labour has moved towards supporting an ‘immediate ceasefire’ and to recognising Palestinian statehood as part of the peace process. This compromise has dampened down these internal conflicts. However, this remains a contentious issue for the British left. Starmer will probably want to work closely with the United States and other allies to advance a ceasefire and peace process multilaterally. But expect internal pressure on a Starmer government to take a firmer line in favour of the Palestinian cause – especially if the two state solution becomes an even more remote prospect – and to consider reviewing the UK’s small but symbolically toxic arms exports to Israel.

Copyright image : Oli SCARFF / AFP

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