The best thing about Anneliese Dodds’ Mais Lecture on 13 January is that it was crushingly, almost preternaturally, dull. Even the economics correspondents of the serious dailies struggled to find much to say beyond the hold-page-93 headline that the National Audit Office will be licensed to survey Labour spending plans.
What meagre reviews the speech received were snarky and, in the gossip articles of the Sunday newspapers, the chatter has started against the shadow chancellor and some of her colleagues. There is something in these whispers. The shadow cabinet are a still unknown band and you might have thought that opposing Gavin Williamson, Grant Shapps, Thérèse Coffey and Matt Hancock would be an opportunity to be seized, but you deserve a prize if you can identify their four obscure shadows. Concern is starting to creep into public view from Labour MPs who worry that they are letting the Conservative Party get away with its catastrophic handling of the pandemic. In the latest poll the parties are locked: Labour on 39 per cent, the Tories on 38.
Yet before we allow this rushed judgement we need to slow the frame a little. Politics is not quite yet a race between the quick and the dead. Labour’s defeat in 2019 was, after all, its worst since 1935. Then, a long hiatus with no effective leader, as the candidates trudged pointlessly to hustings after hustings, meant that Keir Starmer inherited a polling deficit of 20 points against a prime minister still enjoying the afterglow of victory. Therefore it is worth remembering that the most salient new fact in British politics is that the Labour Party has a viable election-winning leader for the first time since 2007. The simple truth that Starmer is a contender matters more than the shadow education secretary Kate Green’s inability to knock over Williamson.
However, anxiety is certainly warranted in the Labour ranks, albeit not for that reason. It is likely to get harder for Labour before it gets easier – if, indeed, it ever gets easier. Richard Leonard has become the latest Labour leader in Scotland to give up on the essential task of hauling back the SNP. The row about extending the uplift to Universal Credit may well be exposing the real Rishi Sunak. But, even though welfare cuts do count for the new intake of Tory MPs, Universal Credit won’t endure as a resonant question. As James Johnson, Theresa May’s former pollster, has said, the only issue surfacing in the focus groups is the distribution of the vaccine and how surprisingly rapid and efficient that has been.
The Labour Party is going to have to steel itself for Boris Johnson taking the applause for a process that, it will protest in vain, is actually to the credit of the NHS. When Johnson seeks to unite the nation at its moment of liberation it will be irritating and almost completely unmerited for him to do so. But any self-respecting politician would do the same and it is naive to get too annoyed at Johnson for trying it on.
One of Johnson’s great assets as a politician, and he has many, is that he irritates his opponents into over-reaction and error. It will be tempting – I can even feel the desire as I write this – to complain loudly that the government has presided over the worst death toll from Covid in the developed world, that every decision came too late and that the Prime Minister should be ashamed for seeking to take credit for such a fiasco. Yet he will take credit anyway and there will be some credit to be taken.
When that happens, Labour needs to hold its nerve because the situation could then get tougher still. Once the pandemic is over the forgotten discipline of politics is going to return. And we need to remember that Labour is really not much good at this ancient and neglected art. Back in the recesses of history, before there was Brexit to excite the passions and Covid to still the nation, politics was about other things.
By the time of the next general election politics will be about other things once again. Precisely, and assuming there is time for a sharp economic recovery, the subject of politics is likely to be how the nation closes its deficit and begins to pay down its colossal debt. Though the Johnson-Sunak team will not embrace austerity with the alacrity or relish of George Osborne, the question is returning.
Which brings us back to the shadow chancellor. It is true that Dodds has yet to penetrate the consciousness of the public, and any semblance of economic credibility remains Labour’s single biggest weakness. If it is not addressed before the next election it is hard to see how Labour can win, and it may transpire that Dodds will not make the leap to public recognition on which her leader has gambled.
Dodds’ Mais Lecture, though, contained the hints of an economic approach that will be better equipped for the politics of debt repayment than anything Labour has offered since Gordon Brown vacated the Treasury. Dodds stressed the importance of prudent financial management and insisted that not all public spending was ipso facto virtuous. She floated the idea of a “fiscal anchor”, which would be a restraint on Labour’s improvident instincts, and made not one mention of nationalisation.
These are but glimmers and Starmer needs to lead the economic charge, but the approach being tested here matters a lot more than the obscurity of the shadow cabinet. There should be changes soon. Rachel Reeves, Pat McFadden and Peter Kyle are among some of the Labour MPs who are underused, but there is a long road to travel and the landscape is going to change soon. It won’t be long before we are back on terrain that looks strangely familiar but on which the Labour Party has struggled to move forward before.
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden