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5 June 2024

Keir Starmer’s promise of stability will come back to haunt him

With Britain in ruins, change without disruption means no change at all.

By John Gray

As Britain comes to the end of its worst period of governance in modern times, Labour will inherit the ruins of the regime it planned to bring under new management. Keir Starmer’s offer is change without disruption – an elusive notion that, for legions of discontented voters, means no change at all. Yet changes of a radical kind are coming. Starmer’s promise of stability will return to haunt him, and fissures that are emerging in the monolithic party he has built will widen dangerously.

It is not any single crack that threatens the peeling edifice of the British state. The foundations are subsiding, and every wing of the ramshackle pile is quaking. Failing local councils and a swathe of universities are headed for bankruptcy. Thames Water may prove to be only the first in a series of defaulting utilities. The NHS is systemically dysfunctional. The prison system is releasing criminals early as jails become lawless because of overcrowding and understaffing. The armed forces are deprived of personnel, equipment and ammunition at a time when the global situation is more dangerous than it has been since the run-up to the Second World War.

In all these areas Starmer offers better administered decline, but even this modest objective cannot be achieved by prolonging a fast-decaying regime. There is no solution for failing local councils hit by the rising costs of social care other than increased funding by central government. Defence spending must also be increased, though not without serious reform of the procurement process. Bankrupt universities, on the other hand, should be allowed to go out of business; savings should be deployed to fund a redistributive grant system providing full support for those from low-income backgrounds. Thames Water should be nationalised, along with other utility companies wrecked by predatory privatisation. To his credit, Wes Streeting accepts that the NHS cannot be saved simply by doling out more money. But will Labour have the stomach to face down NHS bureaucracy, while raising wages for junior doctors, nurses and care workers?

The decomposing British state is a product of wealth destruction on a colossal scale. Private-equity vulture capitalists have hollowed out business enterprise, siphoning off assets and hawking the shells to foreign magnates. (Not much discussed in the media, the nearly 400-year-old Royal Mail looks like it will be bought by a Czech billionaire.) Rachel Reeves is right to insist on the necessity of fiscal restraint; the alternative is another Liz Truss-style debacle. When the shadow chancellor talks of creating a Norway-style national wealth fund, however, she is in la-la land. Where Norway husbanded the riches flowing from its natural resources Britain squandered them, and the remaining assets in the North Sea will be lost if Labour persists in chasing the chimera of “green growth”. The coffers will be empty. A British sovereign wealth fund containing only debts would be a genuine fiscal innovation.

A more ambitious agenda would be costly, but not unaffordable. Curbing rising state pensions while protecting the worst off – the opposite of Rishi Sunak’s “quadruple lock” – would go some way to closing the shortfall. Writing off HS2 completely would save tens of billions. Nothing can be done without stemming inflows of economic migrants, currently on a scale that negates any feasible improvement in public services. To note this fact is to underline the impossibility of Labour taking the necessary action. The fact that such a programme would command the support of a British majority is irrelevant.

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In refusing to enter the actual centre ground, Labour and the Tories are one and the same. But the uniparty to which they both belong is beginning to crumble. After his botched attempt to bar Diane Abbott from standing as a Labour candidate, Starmer’s image as a ruthlessly effective manager has been badly dented. The support Abbott has received from Angela Rayner as deputy leader and the leader of Scottish Labour Anas Sarwar is a warning of deeper fractures to come. Rayner’s leaked assertion that a Labour government will recognise Palestinian statehood is another sign of growing division. The Leninist discipline Starmer imposed on the party in order to suppress the left is breaking down.

Though he may be Reform’s only candidate with a realistic prospect of entering the Commons, Nigel Farage is now plainly the most consequential figure in the election. His decision to run in Clacton, Essex will magnify the impending Tory disaster. By contesting Conservative-held seats in which he stood down his troops in 2019, he has every chance of reducing the Tories to an impotent rump. In an exquisite irony, as leader of the advancing forces of the populist right, Farage is reshaping British politics on a European model.

With the monolith Starmer constructed already fragmenting, not even a Labour majority as humongous as that posited in a recent YouGov poll will secure stable government. When that becomes clear, voters will abandon Britain’s derelict party system. Only if electoral reform takes place can dealing with a society headed for penury become politically possible. Or the ruins of a once first-world country beggared by its political class will go on rotting away.  

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s right-wing pantomime impresses no one]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024