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The Labour vibe shift

After 14 years of Conservative rule, world leaders, MPs, business and the media are preparing for a new political order.

By New Statesman

The Labour Party is heading for government. This reality – reinforced by the party’s gains in the recent local elections in England – is reshaping British politics and public life.

Three Conservative MPs – Christian Wakeford, Dan Poulter and, most contentiously, Natalie Elphicke – have defected to Labour. The former Tory minister Nick Boles, once one of David Cameron’s ideological outriders, has become an adviser to the party. Tickets for Labour’s planned “business day”, priced at £3,000 per head, sold out in under 24 hours. The Economist magazine, which last endorsed the party at the 2005 general election, devoted a recent cover to the opposition’s “courtship” of business. A story on enervated Labour staffers denied annual leave made the front page of the Financial Times.

In 2021, the US trend forecaster and Substacker Sean Monahan coined the term “vibe shift” to describe a change in the cultural zeitgeist (examples included “hipster/indie” from 2003-09 and “techno revival” from 2010-16). British politics is witnessing something comparable. Allegiances and styles are changing as MPs, business leaders and the media prepare for a new political order. After all, as Mr Monahan observed, a crucial marker of a vibe shift is that some get left behind.

For 14 years, Britain’s political ecosystem has been shaped by the reality of a Conservative government. Think tanks such as Policy Exchange (Mr Boles’ former outfit), the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies have enjoyed close relationships with ministers. Austerity, Brexit, “Trussonomics” – all of these projects have been shaped by the ideological right.

But the prospect of a Labour administration means the momentum is shifting towards alternative institutions. As Andrew Marr writes on page 16, think tanks such as IPPR, the Resolution Foundation, UCL Policy Lab and Labour Together (whose director Josh Simons writes on Starmerism on page 11) are focusing in different ways on the “lethal credibility gap between government and daily life”. The question of social-democratic administration is supplanting that of free-market experimentation. New ideas – Rachel Reeves’ “securonomics” for instance – are rising, old ideas are receding.

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The change in the political atmosphere is not confined to the UK. At the Munich Security Conference in February, Keir Starmer met the likes of Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato and Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. The world, in other words, has noticed that the Conservative Party is heading for opposition.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, as Jason Cowley writes from Washington DC (page nine), is attracting attention from senior Republicans and Democrats alike. Among others, Mr Lammy has met the former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, the Hillbilly Elegy author and Ohio senator JD Vance (a potential vice-president), and Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Robert O’Brien. Titles such as Foreign Affairs in the US and France’s Le Grand Continent have given Mr Lammy space to elaborate his concept of “progressive realism”.

The vibe shift, however, is not uncomplicated. As some move towards Labour, others move away. The war in Gaza has become a rallying cause for the left. George Galloway has returned to parliament. The Greens and independent candidates have harnessed anti-Labour sentiment. In his 1995 novel The Information, Martin Amis wrote of his protagonist: “It often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in the land was Labour, except the government. All writers, all book people were Labour.”

The same is not true today (in spite of the party’s 20-point poll lead). Near-universal discontent with the Tories does not equate to mass enthusiasm for Labour. Shadow cabinet ministers fear a swift backlash should the party fail to deliver in office.

But after more than a decade in opposition, Labour now enjoys one of the greatest opportunities in its history. A large parliamentary majority would give it a degree of political power almost unrivalled in Europe – to change Britain’s economy, public services, constitution and foreign policy.

[See also: The Tories’ death spiral]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink