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6 April 2024

Labour’s depressing caution

The party’s strategy to win power might make sense. But what happens when they win?

By Jonn Elledge

Oh god, it’s happened again. I’ve had a thought about the Labour Party, and I’m going to write it down, even though I know that by doing so I’m essentially setting my Twitter mentions on fire. Oh well, once more unto the breach.

Roy Jenkins once said that leading Labour to victory was like “carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor”, a quote rolled out so frequently these last few months that your eyes likely glazed over sometime in the first half of this sentence. But it’s only these last few weeks that it’s dawned on me exactly what this means in practice. It’s hit me why Labour is so depressingly cautious – and why, the more probable victory looks, the more cautious, if anything, its leadership seems to become.

In some ways, of course, this critique is unfair. As George Eaton pointed out in his write-up of Rachel Reeves’s Mais lecture in March, the shadow chancellor is staking out a position to the left of new Labour in areas including workers’ rights, public ownership and public investment. The party is standing its ground on planning reform, too – which, given how central housing costs are to the economy’s broader malaise, has the potential to be transformative, if not for some time.

Yet these are the technical sort of things you must be a politics nerd to have even spotted, and the broader mood music of the party still reflects an overwhelming desire not to frighten the horses. There are few big headline pledges being trumpeted as positive reasons to vote Labour; spokespeople give the impression of accepting Tory fiscal framing, no matter how implausible the government’s pledges on either tax or spending become. The single biggest intervention Labour has made this year was to slash its £28bn green investment pledge, a move away from radicalism rather than towards it. Given that both polling and by-elections suggest a public desperate for change, Labour’s determination to suggest it won’t offer any is striking.

This caution surely reflects calculations about the views of swing voters in the seats the party needs to win back. Partly, too, it must stem from the fact that the history of the Labour Party is one of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. But there’s a more fundamental reason best explained with a question: what could the Tories actually do to save themselves?

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Jeremy Hunt has, after all, effectively slashed the headline tax rate by 4 pence these last few months. It didn’t move the polls an inch. Rishi Sunak, for all his ineptitude, has shown an interest in actually governing that both his two immediate predecessors lacked; his personal ratings have collapsed. All the Tories’ retreat to the comfort zone of immigration policy and culture wars seems to have done is to alienate the centre while boosting Reform on the right. The overwhelming sense from polls and focus groups alike is that a critical mass of the electorate are simply done with this government, and think it’s time for change. Marginal improvements in the economy or household finances may reduce the scale of the rout – but it’s hard to conceive of a way the Tories could save themselves.

Routes by which Labour could fumble their lead, by contrast, are upsettingly easy to imagine. An overly honest discussion of the fiscal situation and the tax rises that might get us out of it. An enthusiastic promise of yet more negotiations with Brussels. A scandal of the sort you can’t predict in advance, but which puts voters off you entirely. I’m not saying the risk is high – the Tories have stitched themselves up so comprehensively it’d take a lot to swing the mood once again. It is, nonetheless, far, far easier to imagine Starmer and Co mucking this up for themselves than it is to imagine the government offering anyone a positive reason to vote Tory at this stage.

This is not merely a reason for Labour to err on the side of caution: it suggests, logically but perversely, a reason to become more cautious, the more probable victory becomes. If the biggest threat Labour faces is itself, after all, then it makes sense for the leadership to be laser-focused on offering no reason to vote against them: the bigger the lead, the greater the terror of losing it. Would you really want to be the one who dropped the vase?

That this strategy makes sense does not mean it’s a good thing, however, and the risk of frightening some voters with radicalism is surely balanced at least partly by that of repelling others who can’t see how Labour would be any different. Even if the party does sweep to victory, there’s a risk it won’t have a mandate for the kind of change it needs to affect: a new government could rapidly lose support as it makes hard choices it failed to warn were coming. Labour doesn’t just need to win, it also needs to be able to govern. At the risk of over-stretching the metaphor: that vase still has to be worth something once it reaches the far side of the floor.

[See also: We are all Tom Ripley]

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