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26 August 2023

Once it wins Labour can set the terms of debate

The party will be able to decide the fiscal rules it must adhere to, while the media will pivot left to follow power.

By Jonn Elledge

I’ve always felt just a little bit sorry for William Hague. One of the most impressive Tories of his generation, he won his party’s leadership aged just 36, at a time when every holder of that post who’d come before him had gone on to be prime minister. He must have thought he was a shoo-in, the 21st century’s answer to Pitt the Younger.

Unfortunately for Hague, though, he got the job in 1997, after Labour had won a 179-seat majority. Nobody could see the rising star, who’d go on to be one of the few senior ministers to escape the current government with his reputation intact. All they could see was a young fogey, spouting cringey comments about how much he liked a pint from below an even cringier baseball cap. There was simply no political space, in those early Blair years, to consider whether the Tory leader might have a point: all that mattered was the parliamentary arithmetic. He’d failed before he’d even begun.

Once upon a time we all understood that Britain was an elective dictatorship: win a decent majority and be willing to put up with short-term unpopularity, and you can do, if not anything, then a hell of a lot. You certainly don’t need to listen to the other side. 

That, though, has been largely forgotten, because a decade in which no one managed a decent majority was followed by a PM who was absolutely petrified of unpopularity. Liz Truss, it’s possible, did remember – how else to explain those Budget policies – but she made the critical error of doing something that scared the markets as well as the voters and we all know what happened there. So now we have a majority government that’s terrified to bloody do anything. We’ve all lost the sense of quite what an administration with a decent majority and a willingness to use it can do.

Which is why, I think, the commenting classes are not remotely prepared for what it’d mean if the next election result looks even slightly like the polls suggest. A lot of things everyone “knows” about politics right now will simply no longer hold true.

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Top of the list, of course, is Europe. One of the big barriers to a slightly less self-harming trading relationship with our nearest neighbours is that the Leave coalition which elected this government won’t wear it. Polls showing widespread Bregret haven’t changed that, partly because the people in charge don’t want them to, but also because they’re not going to tell their own voters to stick it.

[See also: Can Murray Foote save the SNP?]

If Labour wins a healthy majority though, taking back the Red Wall despite the hysterical squeaking coming from the direction of Matthew Goodwin, then they’ll no longer be the government’s voters. If a new prime minister were to announce he’s looked at the books and it’s worse than we thought so we need to move back towards Europe, then who’s going to stop him? Brexit may not be reversible, but its supporters’ ability to keep limiting political choices now will be effectively dead.

Or consider the other major drag on growth, this country’s chronic inability to actually bloody build anything. Whether it’s the water, energy or transport infrastructure needed to make the economy function, or homes that allow workers to live on the same landmass as their jobs, almost any proposal to build is likely to face opposition. 

Such campaigns are dominated by the older voters on which this government depends, and so have latterly been coddled. But these will not be the voters who make up Labour’s electoral coalition. Here, too, a new government will be able to bypass a barrier by simply ignoring it. (If it’s feeling brave, in fact, the first year after the election might be a great time to cynically design a formula which magically dumps new homes on those seats foolish enough to have voted against them. This is, after all, how the current lot distributed council funding.)

Both a closer relationship with Europe and planning reform are, essentially, free. But even in areas where Labour needs to spend money, an election victory will make life easier. By setting its own fiscal rules, the government essentially defines how much headroom it has, which is one reason – others are available – why Labour is asked to explain how it will fund its policies a lot more than than the Tories are. Control of the Treasury won’t give Labour infinite wriggle room, but it will nonetheless make Labour’s life easier and the Tories’ harder.

In all these ways, the parameters of British politics will change, hugely and instantaneously the moment Labour wins a majority. There is little commentary out there to suggest anyone has absorbed this fact.

That doesn’t mean the party will actually use this political space, of course: it must be at least possible that the cynics are right, this isn’t an electoral strategy and Starmer’s Labour is exactly as gutless and unambitious as it seems. Nor does it mean we’ve heard the end of the reactionary whining – about the referendum, the Red Wall, the idea that this patch of scrubland off the M25 is more important than either affordable housing or the fact the planet is visibly starting to burn.

But once they’re on the losing side of an election, those people will largely cease to matter. They can whine all they want: the people with all the power won’t have to listen to them. There’ll be other new categories of voter to absorb all the attention instead, and even the parts of the media which support the current lot will to some extent pivot, because the mechanics of reporting require journalists to follow power. Everything will change, in ways that are hard to predict right now. 

And the next Tory leader, if they’re very, very lucky, will get to be the 21st century’s answer to William Hague. 

[See also: Prisons are at breaking point]

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