Something strange is happening to British politics. The super-rich are calling for higher taxes on their wealth – and 64% of Conservative voters agree. Polls show that only 12% of people want to go back to the “old normal”, and there is no appetite for further austerity. Even the Conservatives are borrowing Roosevelt’s clothes, dismissing the idea of spending constraints as “dogma” by which they are “unencumbered”. Austerity politics seems to be well and truly dead.
The only people who seem to have missed the memo are the Labour party. As commentators scratch their heads trying to adjust to this head-spinning shift in the politically possible, Labour seems reluctant to follow – let alone seize the chance to get out in front. Asked on The Andrew Marr Show if the party backed higher taxes on the wealthy, frontbencher Rachel Reeves dodged the question. If the tide is turning in Labour’s favour, they may be the last people in the country to realise it.
So what is going on? Many on the left are increasingly inclined to dismiss the new leadership as irredeemably right wing. But it’s more complicated than that. Corbynism has not been replaced by reheated Blairism, it has been replaced by a vacuum. Reeves’ most revealing comment was this: “We’re not setting out proposals at the moment for the next manifesto, the next general election is likely to be four years away … There’s plenty of time to do that work.”
Keir Starmer’s Labour is single-mindedly pursuing a clear political strategy regardless of what happens around it: the coming years are about rebuilding the party’s credibility. The way to do this, they believe, is through reasoned critique of government policies while distancing themselves from Corbyn-era policy and avoiding controversy at all costs. Then, and only then, will they start to think about putting forward a positive policy offer. So far, the consensus seems to be that this strategy is going well. Starmer’s first 100 days have won plaudits from the commentariat. One shadow minister said it had exceeded “our wildest dreams”. There’s just one problem: the assumptions underpinning the strategy are wrong.
To begin with, it is taking the wrong lessons from Labour’s four successive election defeats. Labour has consistently performed worse when the terms of debate were dictated by its opponents. On austerity in 2010 and 2015, and on Brexit in 2019, it was boxed into a space it could not get out of.
Only in 2017, when it successfully shifted the debate on to its popular domestic agenda, did it come within a whisker of victory. For all its flaws, the Corbyn project understood that Labour must seek to shape public opinion, not simply follow it. In 2019, it did not do this nearly successfully enough, overreaching with policies such as free broadband, for which the ground had not been prepared. But the lesson here is that the party must get better at setting the agenda – not give up trying to do it at all. Even the Labour Together report into the 2019 general election concluded that retaining a bold economic offer was essential to building a winning electoral coalition.
Corbyn’s Labour was not ultimately defeated by the staid managerialism of Theresa May, but the rightwing populism of Boris Johnson. The latter explicitly pitted himself against the political establishment, promised to end austerity – and turned out 2 million new voters. His victory does not disprove the thesis that people are fed up with the old politics and ready for change, it confirms it.
Even if one does not accept this analysis, the fact remains that we are now in the middle of a serious crisis which is upending old certainties and urgently demands new thinking. Labour must adapt its strategy accordingly: it does not have “plenty of time” to work out what it stands for. The time to put forward a bold agenda is now – not in four years’ time. Recall the Conservatives’ response to the 2008 financial crash. For a brief window they struck a tone of unity in the face of national crisis, as Starmer has done during the pandemic. But as soon as the immediate threat had passed, they shifted gear, lambasting Labour for letting the deficit get too high. The seeds of the austerity narrative were sown in the public mind long before the 2010 election. It’s this, as much as anything Corbyn did, that Labour is still paying the price for: it continues to lag behind the Tories in perceived economic competence.
Labour is clearly still haunted by this. But to keep trying to prove itself by defensively fighting the political battles of a decade ago is precisely the wrong response. Instead, it must go on the front foot and tell its own story about the economy. It must own the rising desire for change and shift the debate on to terrain that makes the Tories uncomfortable.
The pandemic has given us all cause to reflect on what really matters: our health, food on the table, time with family and friends. It has made it painfully clear that our economy is not designed to deliver these things. It has shone a light on the real wealth creators: not landlords and financiers, but shop workers and fruit pickers. Yet it is also widening inequalities: wealthy asset owners are building up cash piles while low-income workers are pushed into debt.
The Tories’ plan for “recovery” will mean years of growing poverty, insecurity, debt and homelessness. Just as in 1945, a shared experience of collective trauma is brewing a demand for something better. Labour has both an opportunity and a responsibility to offer a vision that responds to this demand. It must seize it – or risk being left behind by events.
• Christine Berry is a researcher, writer and consultant