The most important announcements at Brighton this week were made well outside of the high-security conference centre hosting the Labour Party. They were the notices you could spot in the windows of hotels and bars advertising work – for chefs, receptionists, cleaners – as the tight labour markets of Covid Britain play out. Average earnings spiked earlier this year. Meanwhile, three more gas companies have filed for bankruptcy this week and the queues at petrol stations show few signs of shrinking. The pandemic is reshaping our economy through crises, exacerbated by the impact of Brexit.
A more opportunistic opposition leader might have jumped straight in to exploit this. David Cameron tore up his speech for the 2008 Conservative conference after the financial crash broke, shamelessly flipping the Tories’ loud support for Labour’s spending plans into total opposition, thus setting the scene for the 2010 general election and the subsequent decade of austerity.
Keir Starmer could have done the same. If a hi-vis jacket is good enough for the Old Etonian Boris Johnson, it surely wouldn’t have been out of place for the son of a nurse and a toolmaker to put on his own fluorescent gilet and be seen, across the media, talking to hauliers, lorry drivers and ordinary motorists queuing for petrol. If the privatised petrol companies can’t supply petrol and the privatised gas companies can’t supply gas, the case for public ownership is being made for you. And if petrol is running out, then instead of talking only about a Conference-pleasing but public-mystifying “Green New Deal”, there should be a clear demand for, say, an accelerated car scrappage scheme and electric vehicle investment – of the kind that the shadow business secretary Ed Miliband talked about in his conference speech.
Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’s pledging £28bn of annual green investment was spot-on – the amount needed, according to IPPR calculations, to rapidly decarbonise key parts of the economy, and closely matching the ambitious plans that Miliband has been working on. But there’s no point creating the political space to spend money and attack the Tories if you don’t then occupy that space and do some attacking.
Labour’s front bench offered other opportunities for this. Reeves’s speech centred on the “everyday economy” – the local and smaller scale economy where most of us spend most of our time: using neighbourhood public services, or working for a local business. She spoke of the need to broaden industrial policy away from its macho focus on high-tech manufacturing towards the hospitality, retail and care sectors – all heavily affected by Covid, and all employing a majority of female workers. Announcements by Angela Rayner and Andy McDonald on expanding workers’ rights, and the shadow work and pensions minister Jonathan Reynolds’s vision for a reformed welfare state show a front bench prepared to break with the free market consensus.
The problem Labour faces on economic policy, however, is the exact opposite to the one implied by conventional wisdom: the party has to contend not with the failures of Corbynism, but with its success. Though it’s rarely acknowledged, the economic policy consensus in Britain has settled somewhere strikingly close to the 2017 Corbyn programme: significant borrowing for capital investment, higher taxes for higher day-to-day spending, an independent central bank and a reduction in the Treasury’s power combined with a focus on regional inequality. A hard Brexit provides the opportunity – freedom from EU State Aid and competition rules – for substantially greater government intervention, geared towards supporting green industries. Parts of George Osborne’s “long-term economic plan” are retained, notably including an expanded remit for the Office for Budget Responsibility, but austerity is rejected and direct price controls on essentials are imposed.
Both Labour and Tory leaderships now agree on something like this outline. It remains to be seen how far the “sound money” old guard still at the Treasury roll back on it in the Spending Review, but if his recent Cabinet reshuffle is any guide, Johnson remains a prime minister very much in charge of his party and government. Given the expected increase in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s own forecasts for economic growth (thus pushing up forecast government revenues), Chancellor Rishi Sunak is likely, with some fanfare, to rediscover his generous nature in October, aided by a ludicrously uncritical media.
This isn’t in Labour’s game plan. Reading Starmer’s 12,000-word pre-Conference magnum opus, it is clear the current Labour strategy is to rely on Johnson’s administration to revert rapidly to Tory stereotype, slashing public spending, undermining rights at work – and perhaps obligingly donning a top hat and tails as they do so.
But “wait for your enemy to make exactly the mistake that would most benefit you” is hardly Sun Tzu and, even without noted Sun Tzu fanboy Dominic Cummings whispering guidance, Johnson himself has an instinctive ability to defy the Tory stereotypes. Despite losing to Johnson in every election he has fought since 2008 in exactly the same way, Labour has fundamentally failed to understand who Johnson is or how he does politics.
Nor has the party shaken its fascination with its own navel, spending hours in rapt contemplation of issues that scarcely brush upon the average voter’s consciousness. Instead of wasting precious conference oxygen on bungled disputes over the party’s internal election procedures, Starmer could and should have spent the week speaking to the country. But to do that he’d need to do more than stage a confrontation with his presumed internal enemies. He’d even have to do more than Corbynomics without Corbyn, and occupy the spaces Johnson won’t be able to: public ownership of failing utilities; government support for supply chains; tax cuts for the workers; wealth taxes for the elite.