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10 January 2023

Can’t Keir Starmer offer a little hope in this bleak midwinter?

While the Tories say “try not to need an ambulance”, Labour says “don’t expect us to fix everything”.

By Jonn Elledge

I sometimes feel the festive season comes too early. Christmas, like the pagan festivals that preceded it, takes place when it does is in large part to mark the winter solstice, the moment in the northern hemisphere when the days begin growing longer once again. But thanks to a phenomenon known as seasonal lag, which means the actual climate runs several weeks behind the timetable the sun is following, the winter solstice happens nearer the beginning of the season than its middle. In other words, we hold our midwinter festival with most of winter still ahead, yet each year we kid ourselves that this the best point in our journey around the sun to diet, stop drinking and refrain from anything else that might be misconstrued as fun. All in all, it makes for the most depressing time of the year.

Contributing to this sense of national depression this year, of course, is literally everything else. For the third time in just over a decade, by my count, the UK is facing a once-in-a-century sort of recession: this one economists predict could be the longest and deepest in the G7, almost as bad as the one forecast for Russia which, given what Russia’s been up to recently, is not a good sign. At the same time, bits of the state are taking it in turns to stop functioning, as their staff go on strike to protest crumbling pay and conditions, and the best public health advice out there right now is “don’t need an ambulance”.

Even more depressing than the state of the country, though, is the state of the politicians responding to it. Starting with the government on the grounds that it is absolutely their fault: its response to the strikes has thus far been that of a toddler, who believes that, if he sticks his fingers in his ears and closes his eyes, then the thing he doesn’t like will cease to exist. If the government wins – this is, it must be said, quite a big if – and the Prime Minister gets his promised new restrictions on industrial action onto the statute book, then his reward is likely to be an even greater public-sector recruitment and retention crisis than the one that got us into this mess. Our reward, meanwhile, will be public services that break down all the time, rather than only when staff walk out.

[See also: The left should try to shape Starmerism, not bury it]

It’s almost impressive how, considering how little I’d expected of Rishi Sunak, he’s managed to disappoint all the same. Confronted with an unprecedented NHS crisis, the sort of winter of discontent that history tells us can knock a party out of contention for literally decades, he hid for a week, before eventually announcing his big idea was: more maths.

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I’m sure there are problems to which this may be a solution – employers’ complaints about innumeracy, say – but they are all long-term challenges, not the crisis we are in the middle of. It’s like not calling the fire brigade until you’ve sorted out a better rate on your mortgage. It’s also – this hardly seems to matter under the circumstances, but might as well finish the thought – never going to happen, because compulsory maths to the age of 18 would require a fundamental rethink of post-16 education, at least some rethink of university entry criteria, and a lot more maths teachers. If the government had any appetite for any of that, it probably wouldn’t be going to quite so much effort to alienate the teaching staff it already has.

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Blessed as we are, though, this wasn’t the Prime Minister’s only rare intervention. In a manner that suggested that one of his Christmas presents was The Ed Miliband Big Book of Political Tips, last Wednesday he outlined no fewer than five pledges. Most obervers predict that two of these (halving inflation, NHS waiting lists falling) will happen anyway; two (economy growing, debt falling) will not but, since Sunak’s government is stuffed unless it manages those things, promising to do so surely can’t make things any worse. Lastly came the pledge to tackle the migrant crisis in the Channel, which served mainly to highlight that the government has absolutely no idea how to tackle the migrant crisis in the Channel, and that if it had any sense at all it would simply stop talking about it. So inspiring was this list that the usually supportive Times asked whether the pledges were “a late Christmas gift for Keir Starmer”.

Normally, of course, a bad period for the government should be a good one for the opposition, and look purely at the polls and that rule holds true. What the Labour leader is saying, however, presents rather a different picture. In the speech he made on 5 January – and for which Sunak’s pledges were meant as a spoiler – Starmer promised “hope” and “optimism”, an end to “sticking plaster politics” and (a top bit of trolling, this) communities “taking back control”.

But he also went out of his way to make sure no one was expecting a radical, transformative government, and stressed that “we won’t be able to spend our way out of this mess”. This, given how many of our problems can be traced back to a simple shortage of cash, seems like an attempt to limit expectations that Labour might be able to fix anything. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won a US election under the slogan “It’s morning in America”. Starmer seems to be hoping to win by telling us it’s 3am in the UK, and thanks to the Tories, the heating just went off. Again.

Of course Labour is reluctant to list any solid policies right now: if it does the government might nick them. But it could surely at least suggest that things can only get better. Somehow we have to get through two more years until the election, while the government makes everything worse and the opposition tells us to manage our expectations. This might be a good year to hold off a while on the post-Christmas diet, that’s all I’m saying.

[See also: Can Starmer take back control of “take back control”?]

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