During the 1979 general election campaign, as he felt power slipping away, the Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan observed to his aide Bernard Donoughue: “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”
Have we reached a comparable moment of transition? The recent local elections in England, where the Conservatives lost more than 1,000 seats, offered a snapshot of an increasingly anti-Tory country. The Conservatives remain in office, but they are behaving as if they have entered opposition. At the recent conference of the Conservative Democratic Organisation – a Tory Bennite grouping – activists yearned for the return of Boris Johnson. At the National Conservatism Conference in London, Suella Braverman, the hard-right Home Secretary, delivered an audition for the party leadership as other speakers lamented the state of Britain after 13 years of Tory government.
Meanwhile, out of public view, a small group of Labour figures are plotting their path to power – and how they would use it. And so in this issue, we publish our inaugural Left Power List (page 20): a guide to the 50 most influential people in progressive politics in Britain.
Our list, selected by a panel of New Statesman staff and contributors, is unsurprisingly dominated by Labour’s new power brokers. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, is at number one, just ahead of Keir Starmer, owing to her influence on the defining political issues of our time: the economy and the living-standards crisis. Ms Reeves has the final say over Labour’s spending commitments and, in recent times, has met over 400 chairs and chief executives as the party seeks to woo business.
Other names on our list will be less familiar to some readers. Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s campaign director and Mr Starmer’s most senior aide, is at number three. The once-marginal group he co-founded, Labour Together, has succeeded in its original aim of taking back control of the party. Labour’s national campaign coordinator, Shabana Mahmood (number 20), and shadow justice secretary, Steve Reed (number 31), are among its pivotal members.
Two years ago in these pages, following Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election, Tony Blair (number 16) wrote that “the Labour Party won’t revive simply by a change of leader. It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction.” Back then, Mr Starmer’s leadership appeared vulnerable. Yet the Labour leader’s pragmatic – and sometimes ruthless – approach has made him the overwhelming favourite to be the next prime minister. Whether he can lead a truly transformative social democratic government remains uncertain but he can claim to have surprised his doubters.
The wider list is a reflection of the electorally powerful coalition now ranged against the Conservatives. Following the largest wave of strike action since 1989, four trade union general secretaries appear in our top 20. They include Pat Cullen (number 15), the leader of the Royal College of Nursing, who led the largest strike in the union’s 107-year history. After a decade of austerity, the Conservatives are on the wrong side of moderates as well as militants.
Though our list includes radical leftists – such as the RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch (number 19), and the Socialist Campaign Group chair, Zarah Sultana (number 47) – it also features less partisan figures such as the consumer champion Martin Lewis (number four), the TV presenter Gary Lineker (number five) and the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford (number 42). They have led defining confrontations with the Conservatives over tax cuts for the rich, refugees and free school meals, and exemplify an electorate that has sometimes felt as if the government has gifted voters reasons to oppose it.
In his 1976 Labour conference speech, Mr Callaghan pre-empted Thatcherism as he told his party: “We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession… I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.” Today, Rishi Sunak is similarly telling a Conservative Party agitating for immediate tax cuts, a smaller state and a trade war with the EU that those options no longer exist. But as the Prime Minister may yet discover, when there is a sea change there is no stopping it.
[See also: The Left Power List]
This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List