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8 December 2021

Labour still looks like a conventional party, and is betting on politics as it once was

Now that Keir Starmer has drawn together a strong shadow cabinet, a government led by Labour could be closer than you think.

By Philip Collins

Keir Starmer ends the political season very much underpriced. Lost in the he-said, she-said of too much commentary, the consensus on the Labour leader is wrong. Although the party has a long and probably impassable road to outright victory, the chances of Starmer becoming prime minister are higher than you might suppose from a cursory reading of his coverage. If I were in No 10 now I don’t think I’d be organising a party.

This is in part a compliment to Starmer, who is the first Labour leader that a majority of the electorate could imagine as prime minister since Gordon Brown. It is important to stress what a central political fact this is. There is no guarantee that such a leader will win but there is no prospect of success at all without one. For a decade, Labour offered up candidates who were wholly implausible.

The very words “prime minister” conjure the spectre of Boris Johnson, who casts such a mist over British politics that it prevents both his detractors and his supporters from seeing him clearly. His detractors cannot see his virtues and his supporters ignore his vices. Yet the divisive nature of the current Prime Minister does make a Starmer premiership more likely because the present Tory party has no friends elsewhere in politics. The days of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats seem like ancient history. If Johnson does not win another majority, it is unlikely that any other party will help keep him in power.

It is often pointed out that Labour has not yet made a significant and sustained breakthrough in the opinion polls. But it is less frequently noted, though equally true, that Labour doesn’t have to do all that well in order to win. The current prediction from the forecaster Electoral Calculus is a template for a plausible outcome. If the two main parties are locked on 37 per cent each, the Conservatives win 291 seats and Labour takes 269. But the other 90 seats will all be won, with the possible exception of the eight DUP members, by parties deeply hostile to Johnson. Labour could in fact lose the popular vote and still form a minority government. The prize of victory for Labour is distant but the prospect of taking office is closer than it looks.

There is, therefore, a likelihood of a Labour administration rather similar to the first one, after the general election of December 1923. Stanley Baldwin called the election to run on the theme of protectionism and, despite winning 258 seats, had to vacate Downing Street for Ramsay MacDonald, because Labour was the larger of the two pro-free trade parties that had been seen to have “won” the election. Governing with the consent of the Liberals, MacDonald’s government only lasted for ten months, but it established that Labour was a responsible governing party. The Liberal Democrats today do not have the appeal the Liberals had under HH Asquith, but the fragmented politics of the threadbare Union of British nations brings a 1923 scenario within the realm of possibility.

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This is not just the upshot of random electoral arithmetic. Starmer has evidently been moving his party. His power seizure and his conference speech closed the book on Labour’s denigration of its own time in government, opened up new political space and fortified the leader’s command of his party. He used that stronger position to gather around him a team that is more or less the best that Labour can field. Some good people – Pat McFadden, Wes Streeting, Bridget Phillipson – were promoted, there were clever redeployments of David Lammy and Lisa Nandy, and the return of Yvette Cooper strengthens the side. Many in the shadow cabinet still lack recognition with the public but there is no question that Starmer now has a team that could form a government. Again, it has been a decade since that could be said.

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And yet, for all that, the Conservative Party seems remarkably immune to political misfortune. This has been another strange year and there remains a sense of politics not quite back to normal. The referendum of 2016 began a time of cold storage. It should be seen as a time apart. First there were the many depredations of the Brexit argument, which made everything else irrelevant. Then, no sooner had we got Brexit done than politics was suspended again with the outbreak of Covid. For years now, British politics has been, to borrow a phrase of Willy Loman’s from Death of a Salesman, kind of temporary about itself.

And here is the rub for next year. Willy Loman is the archetypal figure of an era in which politics was about occupation and class. It has become commonplace in political analysis to point out that class allegiance has been replaced by affiliation rooted in cultural value. There is a great deal of evidence to this effect in the United States and the same trend can be seen in France and Germany. The fevered Brexit vote was Britain’s introduction to cultural politics. And yet the promised revolution is still a little elusive. With every renewed attempt to open up a culture war – the latest tomfoolery is the Prime Minister’s proposal to allow ministers to strike out laws they disapprove of – it is clear that the government doesn’t know how to conduct cultural politics after Brexit.

This, then, is the big question for next year. Will conventional politics return? Will next year be about inflation and living costs and employment rates? Starmer is doing it all better than his predecessors, and his hopes of partial success are not groundless. But Labour still looks and sounds like a conventional party, betting on politics as it once was.

[See also: Humanity, not hostility, will solve the migrant crisis]

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special