We have to entertain the notion that Keir Starmer is good at politics. He has scrubbed Labour of the worst of the left. He has turned extinction-level opinion polls for his party into almost fine ones. He has — mark this — the eternal trait of the political winner: he unhinges his critics.
Why, then, vice and boredom aside, do I trawl betting markets for the odds on a fifth Conservative term? Why does such an undeserved thing seem also underpriced?
First, don’t assume that either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will lead the Tories into the next election. Each laboured to get more parliamentary support than a former contestant on Splash! Each is too small for the crises that are sealing Britain’s role as a poor rich nation with an alpha city attached. Somewhere, we must conclude, a first-rate school is missing its head girl and head boy.
Second, a recession need never be fatal for a government of the right. The reflex case against the left — how will it fund its Jerusalem? — becomes more potent, not less, when revenue dries up. The Tories were re-elected after recessions in 1983 and 1992 but not amid a boom in 1997. Yes, unmet demand for public services makes the present moment exceptional. But so does the high tax burden. Labour cannot pledge to fix the first problem without arousing fears that it will worsen the second. That cost, which feels abstract to voters today, will daunt them as the election nears. Forgive me if I have seen this cycle too often to believe politics is “different now”.
But fine, let us stipulate, against recent history, that a government is only as buoyant as the economy. And that prime minister Truss, say, is the best the Tories can do in 2024. Labour is still overvalued.
Starmer believes it is enough to purge the hard left. This grossly overrates the appeal of the soft left. Tony Blair is the only person born in the last 105 years to have won a general election for Labour. This doesn’t prove that Britain will never abide anyone who is noticeably to his left. But it does put in doubt the viability of a party that, from leader to grassroots, contains little else. The problem now isn’t the few and dispossessed Leninists. It is the MPs who voted, under no psychotropic influence, for Ed Miliband as leader in 2010. It is the “campaigners” for things. It is the bit of Labour that enabled extremism while never espousing it.
Starmer asked Britain to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister in that remote antiquity we call December 2019. Miliband, who enfranchised the hard left in the first place, is still around. “I disliked the cults around Blair and Corbyn: one man doesn’t change things,” said Lisa Nandy, another shadow cabinet member, to the New Statesman last month. The bogus equivalence actually reads worse in context. Voters haven’t even begun to chew on this stuff.
Letting in Corbyn was a unique dishonour in the history of the major parties in the UK. It will take a unique amount of grovelling to live down. And here the old verities of triangulation still apply. If you are seen as left wing and want to be seen as moderate, it is not enough to behave moderately. You must, in vivid ways, go to the right. You must oversteer to end up somewhere in the middle. Nothing less reassures the electorate, or even registers with it.
Consider the industrial strife of the day. Polls suggest that voters side with striking rail workers. But that doesn’t mean they will trust a party of the left that sides with them (or that even equivocates). The same is true of ending the charitable tax status for private schools. It is a question of permission and bona fides. It is a question of what the cops in Britain call your “previous”. Blair understood politics in those lateral terms. Starmer is a literalist. If he is to fulfil Labour’s historic role of giving the Tories a breather after a long stint in office, he has to upset the soft left. He has to upset himself.
For an opposition, the passage from mid-parliament to election time is as exposing as the step from a sombre room to a strip lit one. Each blemish, each laugh line and burst capillary, stands disclosed. What voters will see in 2024 is a reformed Labour, yes, but one about as soft left as the various non-Blair offerings they have rejected in the past. This is the worst government since the war. But we know all about it.