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7 September 2023

Starmer has trapped Labour in a broken liberal consensus

Like Rishi Sunak, the Labour leader only offers a narrow, technocratic pragmatism.

By Jonathan Rutherford

The die is cast. Earlier this week Keir Starmer announced the team he will lead into the next election. Much has been made of the return of the Blairites and the fall of the soft left. But what does the reshuffle tell us about the response of the Labour leadership to this tumultuous period of crises and political realignment?

The country is in a dark and unforgiving mood. Stagnant real wages, a broken housing market, a dysfunctional NHS – there is a widespread feeling that nothing works and nobody can fix it. Precious little light is on the horizon. And yet Brexit has gifted Labour a historical opportunity. The EU has locked in national populist resentment. While the rest of Europe turns to the right, the British electorate is open to a government of the left.

Labour is facing a radically different world from the one in which it took power in 1997. In the past 15 years a series of events have signalled the end of the liberal political consensus and its forms of governance. The 2008 financial crash exposed a banking system that enriched itself at the expense of the country. Globalisation and government policy encouraged rent-seeking that extracted wealth from the economy and put little back. Covid struck and the British state teetered on the point of collapse, hollowed out by decades of privatisation, market-based reforms and austerity.

Brexit called time on national failure. It was a vote to invest in the country and the British people. In 2019 a new kind of Conservative politics – to the left on the economy and to the right on culture and social issues – flickered into life. Boris Johnson’s boosterism tried to propel the country out of its stagnation, but his project collapsed in the wreckage of his premiership. Liz Truss followed. Rishi Sunak has settled for keeping the ship of state afloat while inching his way towards the general election in 2024.

Amid this decade of chaos a new geopolitical era has been taking shape. National security and Britain’s geopolitical role in the world have acquired new urgency. With the end of liberal globalisation, the path is open for the nation-state to focus on economic development and rebuild the relationship between government and citizens. The cities and their middle classes, once dominant in English politics, have lost their electoral advantage to the towns and provinces.

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[See also: Lisa Nandy fails to take Starmer’s reshuffle hint]

And yet, despite these era-defining changes, Labour has not undertaken any kind of enduring reappraisal of its politics since 1995-97. Under Starmer’s leadership it has suffered a chronic unwillingness to analyse and understand the underlying causes of the crises facing the country. Without a diagnosis, Labour has been unable to create a compelling narrative and strategy. From its beginning Starmer’s leadership has been characterised by a lack of political definition. This was not a tactic – it was always a weakness.

He inherited a centre ground within Labour that was politically and intellectually bankrupt. To his right lay the machine activists of the Old Right and the well-organised remnants of Blairism. To his left lay the Corbynites and their more idealistic allies. Somewhere in the centre was the soft left, a shadow of its former self, bereft of leadership and energy.

Having chosen not to pursue any form of political renewal, Starmer’s turn towards “Blairite” progressive politics was inevitable. Politically coherent and the best-organised faction in the Labour Party, it provided some sort of certainty in a radically uncertain world.

But in pursuing this course, Starmer is holding a future Labour government hostage by trapping it in a liberal consensus that has collapsed. Pro-EU, progressive politics is an obstacle to building a broad-based national consensus for economic development. Its political economy, its understanding of the global order and its philosophical notion of the individual have been proved wrong, damaging or simply irrelevant. 

Confronted with the scale of the challenges facing the country, Starmer, like Sunak, has adopted a narrow, technocratic pragmatism at the expense of a coherent political project and policy programme. This week’s reshuffle confirms this. The intellectual and political heavy-lifting necessary to confront the UK’s long slide into chronic disrepair and dysfunction has not been done.

Labour’s annual conference in October will be the party’s biggest political moment in at least a decade. Starmer has restored the party’s electoral credibility and provided its best opportunity to seize national leadership since 1997. The conference will be his final chance before the general election campaign to explain why he wants power and what he will do with it. Sadly, he doesn’t know what to say or do.

[See also: Starmer’s transition from soft-left to Labour right is complete]

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