Rishi Sunak will not rescue the Conservatives from defeat by his retreat from net-zero policies and his rhetoric about stopping the small boats crossing the Channel. Even so, the upshot of the general election is more uncertain than it has been for a long time. In a warning to Labour, the rough beast of politics is slouching back into town.
Sunak has been accused of pandering to populism, but those who level the charge should ask themselves what it means. Populism is, among other things, the repoliticisation of causes judged to be so sacrosanct that they must be insulated from public debate and democratic choice. Conventional green agendas belong in that category, and so does immigration.
From Blair to Cameron, the de-politicisation of key areas of policy was secured under the aegis of technocratic pragmatism. Ideology no longer mattered, we were assured, only competence in delivering what the middle ground in society wanted. The actual outcome was the dominance of a single ideology – post-Cold War capitalist realism. The centre was a triangulation of positions within that neoliberal consensus, rather than a reflection of the needs and values of any British majority.
Now technocratic government’s smartest operator is signalling that it has had its day. After Boris Johnson’s buffoonish interregnum and Liz Truss’s kamikaze dive, Sunak has become the first serious exemplar of a new era. What angry liberals denounce as the exploitation of wedge issues is in reality the return of politics. As sniping at the Conservative conference in Manchester has confirmed, Sunak’s party has collapsed into warring factions, and he may well wobble; but a sea-change is under way.
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As usual, Labour is fixated on the past. In opposition Keir Starmer has tracked the Conservatives wherever there might be electoral risk in doing otherwise. Some have concluded that he has no beliefs, but lately he has revealed the face beneath the blank managerial mask – an unwise move. In government, he tells us, Labour would not diverge from the EU’s regulatory framework. In chorus, Rachel Reeves has announced that public spending will be subject to the scrutiny and potential veto of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Reeves’s budgetary framework will be short-lived. Another banking crisis, a further spike in oil prices or escalating geopolitical conflicts in Ukraine, Kosovo or Taiwan will test it to destruction. At home, with the public sector starved of resources, strikes will rumble on. Either Labour will surrender to the demands of the unions, undermining its economic credibility, or it will cling to an orthodoxy history has passed by. Reeves seems destined to replay the tragic-comic role of Philip Snowden, Labour’s first chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924 and the last of the Gladstonian liberals. Just as Snowden’s creed of balanced budgets and free trade succumbed to the convulsions of the Thirties, Reeves’s fiscal conservatism will crumble under the pressure of events.
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Rule by technocrats is the willed suspension of politics in the service of what are believed to be reasonable and pragmatic objectives. In practice, technocratic pragmatism never works for long and is often not much more than irrational groupthink. As even Tony Blair has pointed out, net zero in Britain is pointless while China is pumping out huge quantities of carbon; it is also unsustainable because of the costs it imposes on many voters. The Green New Deal is dead in the water, and Labour cannot repair Britain’s infrastructure while continuing Tory austerity. When Starmer dabbles in the old-fashioned politics of the left – as in the proposal to impose VAT on private school fees, which alienates the careerist bourgeoisie that is now Labour’s class base – the exercise backfires. Labour will go into the general election with a pervasive mood of weary disgust for the Tories as its only solid asset.
For generations, progress for the left meant infusing politics with its values. For today’s progressives, the goal is to secure their values against political contestation. Motivated by fear, it is a self-defeating project that fuels the forces it dreads.
The counter-productive effects of anti-political progressivism are visible in American “lawfare”. Support for Donald Trump is rising not despite but because of the barrage of lawsuits directed against him. Republicans are retaliating with legal action targeting a purported corrupt business relationship between Joe Biden and his errant son Hunter. But if Trump wins a second term, one reason will be that the Democrats have chosen to fight in the courts whereas he relies on mastery of the political arts.
In his poem “The Second Coming”, published in 1920, WB Yeats wrote that the centre cannot hold. Today, Rishi Sunak is demolishing the centre he once embodied. In the progressive mind as it presents itself today, government is a struggle between reason and dark popular forces of instinct and emotion. In fact, scepticism and common sense survive chiefly among the masses. It is elites that are full of passionate intensity.
Coming to power representing a defunct consensus, Labour will be confronted by a resurgence of politics in its most virulent form. And the next Conservative leader is not going to be a managerial pragmatist. The end result of excluding crucial issues from politics is a populist Tory party.
This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power