New Times,
New Thinking.

The Tory centre will not hold

The Conservative Party created Reform by embracing liberal extremism. What comes next may not be what Labour expects.

By John Gray

Some elections are decided more by an alchemical admixture of moods than by the arithmetical aggregations of psephology, and this was one of them. Bitter disgust towards the Conservatives and resigned acceptance of Labour as the default option have intermingled, and – with an infusion from the first-past-the-post system – produced a super-majority that the majority do not want. Potent but unstable, the compound will undergo another transmutation before the government’s term is over, as its authority is dissolved in the crucible of internal divisions and global shocks.

For the present, Labour seems unchallengeable. With the collapse of the Blue Wall, the demolition of the SNP and a Tory wipeout in Wales, Keir Starmer has made an unelectable party into the untrammelled master of the British state. It is an extraordinary accomplishment. Yet Labour’s hold on power is much weaker than it looks.

On the basis of a historically low turnout and just over a third of the UK votes – only slightly more than Labour won in 2019, when Jeremy Corbyn, now an independent MP, was leader, and less than Corbyn achieved in 2017 – Labour won nearly two thirds of seats in the Commons. A crisis of legitimacy is foreordained. The left will vigorously contest the received economic wisdom embraced by Starmer and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rachel Reeves. And in a new development, neoliberal economics will also be challenged by Reform, which has become Labour’s chief rival in a swathe of Red Wall seats.

Trade unions will rebel against pay settlements dictated by fiscal restraints, and frustration with public services will return, more virulent than it was under the Tories. Citizen groups will resort to civil disobedience to resist the restrictive low-emission zones that are part of the Energy Secretary Ed Miliband’s costly net-zero agenda. Labour is vulnerable in other areas. Four Labour MPs lost their seats to pro-Palestine candidates, and two – the former front-bencher Jess Phillips and Wes Streeting, the Health Secretary – were re-elected on wafer-thin margins as their Muslim vote collapsed. Politics in Britain is being reconfigured on ethnic-sectarian lines – a process the promised new Race Equality Act will accelerate, institutionalising identity politics and further eroding the Labour vote. Many women will think twice about supporting a party they suspect will revert to a progressive stance that compromises their right to single-sex spaces now that it is in power. Catalysed by these forces, Labour’s high command will be the site of ferocious internecine struggles.

Fatuous incompetence and inept corruption played a part in the Conservatives’ downfall. Rishi Sunak speaking drenched on Downing Street, a visit to Belfast’s Titanic Quarter and dishonouring D-Day set an all-time low in No 10 comms. His delay in responding to the betting allegations betrayed a fatal failure of leadership. (A Labour candidate, Kevin Craig, who – relying on his own judgement rather than inside knowledge – bet on losing his own seat in Central Suffolk and North Ipswich was promptly suspended.) The scandal was worse than any for the Tories to date. Whereas partygate displayed contempt for their fellow citizens, senior Conservatives wagering small sums on the date of a mistimed election were scavenging from the corpse of their government. Liz Truss’s 40-odd days of free-market dogmatism destroyed the Tories’ economic credibility, a feat duly noted in the loss of her enormous majority in her South West Norfolk constituency.

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Above all, the Conservatives were undone by their attachment to a confected centrism. Voters deserted to an extreme party because the mainstream had been captured by liberal extremism. Centrists created Reform UK by delegitimising conservatism among Conservatives. The party will not recover if, under a banner of “moderation”, it persists in disparaging and ignoring voters in Britain’s actually existing centre ground.

There was nothing moderate about the project Rishi Sunak inherited from David Cameron. Beyond the Westminster village, there is no consensus on the regime of mass immigration, systematic defunding of state services, rapacious privatisation of utilities, and supine obedience to progressive fads orchestrated by Cameron and his modernisers. The avowed heir to Tony Blair was continuing an experiment in market liberalism begun by Margaret Thatcher over 40 years ago. If Blair added mass immigration, Cameron turned the experiment into an assault on the state. A reductive and hyperbolic version of Thatcherism has ruled British politics ever since. For all Reeves’ rhetorical “securonomics”, Starmer’s Labour is only the latest, if possibly the last, variation on the market-liberal template.

With a variable time lag, British politics follows a European trajectory, but the true lessons of Europe have not been learned. Every rational, liberal, forward-looking person is clear that Britain’s future lies with an economically stagnant, technologically backward and politically unstable bloc. Coming third in Emmanuel Macron’s snap election, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) has been prevented from forming a government by a popular front of the left and far left. But with a hung parliament, France no longer has a government, and because Le Pen has “detoxified” and normalised RN, it remains a key player in the resulting chaos. Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy has undergone an analogous evolution, as have some populist parties in Scandinavia. Throughout much of Europe, the right is occupying the centre that liberals have vacated.

Reform UK shows signs of being on a parallel journey. That it is now the third largest party in terms of votes is all the more remarkable given its distinctly wobbly campaign. Focusing on issues of urgent practical concern is vital for challenger parties. But Nigel Farage repeatedly doubled down on his questionable assertions about the origins of the Ukraine war in Nato expansion, an issue peripheral in the lives of the voters he needed to reach. Britain is not the US, where Donald Trump feeds on war fatigue, or Germany, where much of the population resists any military involvements. When people in this country are concerned about Ukraine it is because they have sympathy for its struggle, even if they fear it may not prevail.

Farage was dented by racist, misogynist, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments reportedly made by a number of his candidates and campaigners. He suspended the alleged offenders while claiming some were trapped in media set-ups, but has acknowledged the harm done by the incidents. The damage was limited by his presence on social media (where he amassed far more views than any other politician) and the appeal of parts of his programme. Writing off student debt for every year medical staff work for the NHS, scrapping interest payments on student loans, bringing 50 per cent of utilities into public ownership, taxing multinational companies to fund relief for small- and medium-sized businesses, active government involvement in the defence industry – whatever else it may be, Farage’s agenda is no longer warmed-up Thatcherism. By breaking with the neoliberal model, he could become a serious threat to Labour.

There is no realistic future in which Farage is leader of the Conservatives, still less prime minister. But anyone who dismisses the possibility of Reform overtaking the Tories as the opposition should pause for thought. As the electorate has become more fickle, the average seat in the Commons has become more marginal. With Reform sucking away Conservative votes and some help from the Liberal Democrats, Labour came close to annihilating the Tories. With better organisation and a proper database, Farage can concentrate Reform’s resources and target Labour. Even under first-past-the-post, and with or without a rapprochement with the Tories, he has the capacity to change the face of politics again.

Labour’s leader would much prefer a world without politics – for a legal bureaucrat and managerial mind, an inherently low-grade business. Ruthless ambition may be Starmer’s principal attribute as a politician, but that is not to say he lacks an ideology or a vision. He shares the progressive project that has captured the ruling political class in Britain and much of the West, the goal of which is to replace politics by judicial process and rational administration.

In its current iteration, progressivism is a hodgepodge of technocratic authoritarianism and liberal legalism. For advocates of technocracy, conflicts of values are problems soluble by experts. Liberal legalism advances a different anti-political vision: basic human needs should be defined and protected in a system of rights. (Gordon Brown’s planned constitutional revolution would entrench welfare benefits in precisely this way.) If there are conflicts within the system, they should be settled in courts of law.

An amalgam of these ideas informs Labour’s programme. Technocratic authoritarianism inspires the effective veto over fiscal policy that will be given to the Office for Budget Responsibility, while judges will be given increased power to make essentially political decisions about the allocation of resources. A good example of the latter is the ruling of the Supreme Court that emissions from burning fossil fuels must be considered when approving new drilling sites. This is not elective dictatorship of the kind attacked by the Conservative politician Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) in the Sixties and Seventies, which meant not much more than parliament being dominated by the government of the day. The power of government is being ceded to non-elected authorities, apparently permanently. If it could be fully realised, this post-democratic vision would mark the end of the sovereignty of parliament and a fundamental alteration in governance.

To be sure, politics as we have known it has not been abolished. Starmer’s advisers are plainly wary of the risks Labour faces. Votes for 16-year-olds are to be introduced on the premise that young people are committed to progressive values. But what if they vote, if they vote at all, for Reform? A generational shift to the right is underway across continental Europe. Outside the big university towns, why not here? A progressive majority is a figment generated by the voting system for the Commons. Once this awkward fact penetrates the left-liberal mind, we can expect a furious campaign against the irresistible implication of the election result – a change in the voting system for Westminster. Reform achieved 14.4 per cent of the national vote and five seats, the Greens four seats on 6.8 per cent of the vote and the Liberal Democrats 71 seats on 12.2 per cent. When liberals digest these numbers their support for a fairer voting system will plummet. We are probably not far from proportional representation – the system adopted in nearly all European countries – being labelled a sinister threat to democracy.

Labour has obvious sources of strength. The scope of patronage is vast. Most MPs will dread losing years on the government payroll by ventilating dissent. Critical voices in the Lords can be rendered inaudible by stuffing it with servile life peers. Quangos will be stacked with pliable careerists. More positively, the calm, business-like persona Starmer projects as Prime Minister has undoubted charm. After years of noise and drift, a certain dullness may feel like a welcome relief.

The moment of tranquillity, though, will be fleeting. Any one of the wars brewing across the world – in Gaza, the Red Sea and Lebanon, the Philippines, Ukraine, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and the Balkans – may escalate at any time and spill out, through disrupted energy supplies and enlarged migrant flows, into Europe. A Chinese blockade of Taiwan would deprive the island of fuel in weeks, and cutting off high-end semiconductors would plunge world markets into a depression greater than that of the Thirties. What will become of Reeves’ fiscal formulae then? Or David Lammy’s “progressive realism”? What remains of an international system is disintegrating. There is no “rules-based order” in which Starmerite Britain can operate.

After this deceptively definitive election, all talk of Labour being safe in office for a decade or more can be consigned to history. Labour’s landslide is an ending, an artefact of astute strategy and a dated electoral system, not a new beginning. Five years on, if the government lasts that long, Britain seems destined to be back where it was in the dying days of the Tories – poorer, wearier and less secure, with the change of regime that is so much needed still to come.

[See also: TikTok will destroy our sense of political history]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change