January is an underrated month in life, if not in politics. It’s a time of new resolve, of fresh intent, but where politics can feel tired – a time, especially with an election looming, where political leaders feel compelled to relaunch, to set out their stall anew, despite having little new to say.
Westminster has been much preoccupied by the question of the timing of the general election. Rishi Sunak has now stated that his “working assumption” is that he will go to the country in the second half of 2024. This upended the (always wrong-headed) expectation from some that he would hold a contest in May.
But while this parlour game is diverting, it is not fundamentally important. The date of the election matters far less than the long-standing political dynamics which surround it.
One of the defining themes of 2023 was Sunak’s inability to alight on a winning message, much less stick to it. He was at once the man who told us that tax cuts must be deferred and then swiftly introduced them. The man who told us he was focused on the long term and then cancelled a decade-long infrastructure project (HS2’s northern leg). The man who doesn’t overpromise and then vowed to “stop the boats”.
Confusion reigns – is Sunak the man who tells hard truths or gives easy answers? A latter-day Cameronite or something entirely new? At various times in 2023 he was all of these things at different times and sometimes at once.
It is Sunak’s failure to define himself and his project which lies at the heart of his beleaguered premiership. He must urgently decide what he is for (but at least he now has a little more time to do so).
Keir Starmer starts the year with a sharper message, albeit an easier one to craft. Time for a change is one of the most potent pieces of political messaging which exists. But his New Year’s speech did go beyond the usual platitudes. Most arresting of all was a passage which spoke to the sheer relentlessness of British political life this past decade: “I promise this – a politics which treads a little lighter on all our lives. That’s the thing about populism and nationalism… it needs your full attention, needs you constantly focusing on this week’s common enemy. And that’s exhausting.”
This was a clear example of Starmer defining himself, and it wasn’t just against Sunak but rather the whole tenor of British and Western politics over the last decade. He channelled a message harnessed in different contexts by both Joe Biden and Boris Johnson – I can make the chaos stop and make politics leave you alone; I am the candidate of order.
The problem is that while Starmer might want us done with disorder, this doesn’t mean disorder is done with us. The essay question of British politics in the next parliament is the extent to which a Labour government can stop the chaos which has engulfed the past 10 years. That is to say, to what extent has that chaos and failure been contingent on Conservative personalities, Conservative political decisions, Conservative fractiousness and Conservative fecklessness, or has something more fundamental caused the turn?
Clearly, the removal of a party which is riven with ideological and personal fissures can only contribute to greater stability. But the election of a Labour government even with a strong majority wouldn’t alter many of the fundamentals. Britain’s relative economic and political position will continue to decline. British economic growth will continue to stagnate, at least in the short term, and the state will remain highly indebted. We will still be in the longest period of living standards stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars. Geopolitics will remain highly volatile. And though having a government not intent on the politics of aggression will be welcome, a Labour administration would continue to operate in a world transformed by technology, social media and polarisation. The example of Biden is instructive. He has changed the tone of politics, but not the terms. The instability, in the form of Donald Trump, a hollow Republican Party and a broken public square, remains.
The answer, in the long term, to a becalmed politics, at least domestically, must be more politics, not less, creative politics – bold thinking to remake a bankrupt economic settlement. Talk of restoring UK growth to the highest in the G7 is itself simply a form of boosterism, likewise cutting NHS waiting lists, or restoring border security, in an age where the party isn’t proposing a significant increase in taxation.
The cost of failure will be great. Starmer’s Britain may soon be an isolated redoubt next to an increasingly right-wing Europe and a newly Trumpite America.
If Labour doesn’t have answers to the fundamental challenges of our time, Starmer will only inflame the politics which he wants to banish. At that point, politics will tread anything but lightly on him – and the rest of us.
[See also: Is Anas Sarwar ready?]