Nobody wastes a crisis like the Labour Party. Just ask the bankers who helped to plunge the world into recession in 2007-08 and got away with it, all under a Labour government. Just ask Gordon Brown, the Labour prime minister at the time, who admitted in 2017 that those responsible for the financial crisis should have been locked up and stripped of their bonuses. Just ask the Conservatives, who are world-beating opportunists when things start falling apart. When Brown failed to turn the aftermath of the financial crisis to the left’s advantage between 2007 and 2010, the Tories exploited the situation instead, eviscerating the public sector, tightening the muzzles on trade unions and activists, and redistributing wealth upwards to their donors and media backers.
One of the most important differences between the Conservatives and Labour is that the Tories, at least since Margaret Thatcher became leader and purged the “wets”, have understood themselves as a partisan ideological project. They seek power in order to transform the world along lines that may not be popular, but are, they believe, necessary. This means that when a crisis comes along, whether it be the UK’s economic chaos of 1978 or the collapse in 2008, their first thought is: how do we make the most of this?
Labour, on the other hand, lacks the coherence that would make its own version of this possible. As a broad church of very different – often conflicting – interests, from striking workers and anti-imperialists to Atlanticist policy wonks and multimillionaire donors, Labour cannot agree on an ideological vision to impose on the country. Instead, its default response to a crisis is platitudes about the “national interest” and policies designed to get things back to normal, frightening as few people as possible.
The latest waves of crisis engulfing the UK have seen Labour backing away from solutions that might change things in the left’s favour, such as an accelerated transition to renewables, the nationalisation of energy companies and price controls subsidised through progressive taxation. It is settling instead for short-term injections of financial support for the hardest hit – a policy platform defined by a refusal to reform any of the offending systems, which ultimately funnels public money towards private energy companies. The Conservatives, by contrast – always on the lookout for ways to shrink the state and expropriate public wealth – are talking about tax cuts and cracking down on protest and trade unions.
There are good reasons for Labour to shy away from anything more overtly ideological. Keir Starmer’s two most recent predecessors sought to exploit crises, and look what happened to them. Ed Miliband used the phone hacking scandal to put Rupert Murdoch on to the defensive, forcing News International to withdraw its bid for BSkyB. Jeremy Corbyn was even braver: after the Manchester bombing interrupted the final stretch of the 2017 general election, Corbyn restarted the campaign with a speech that explicitly tied terrorism to British foreign policy in the Middle East.
Corbyn and Miliband’s gambles paid off, initially. They understood that crises move fast enough to deprive the media of its usual head start on politics, enabling the left to cut straight through to voters, identifying popular framings and solutions before public opinion can be fashioned around something more palatable to the elite. But both Corbyn and Miliband were demonised and ultimately destroyed by the press and the broader political establishment, partly because of their willingness to short-circuit Britain’s usual power brokers when the opportunity arose. Starmer’s single-minded political caution in the face of a new crisis – also proudly on display throughout the Covid-19 pandemic – is in part a consequence of the profound fear that those punishment beatings instilled across the Labour Party.
Thanks to Boris Johnson, Starmer has been able to adopt a very different approach, pitching Labour as a force for restoration, not change; for stability and conservatism, rather than endless unregulated “progress” in the New Labour mould. Internally, Starmer has justified his caution as a means of getting Labour back in power, rather than screaming party principles into the void.
There is a grim good sense in this strategy. If all Labour wants to do is return to government, offering as little change as possible is probably the lowest-risk approach. If Starmer can’t get Britain’s power elite – the media barons, big business and affluent voters in the south-east – directly on side, he can at least persuade them not to fear him, and secure a relatively easy ride when an election comes around.
Nevertheless, this strategy is still a gamble. When the next election arrives, the Tories and the rest of the establishment can still do a deal – a few more tax cuts, a few more anti-union laws, a bit more deregulation – and Labour will duly receive another public thrashing; in the absence of a virtuous explanation for that thrashing, which Corbyn certainly had, the Labour Party will find itself politically stranded, lacking even a base to rally.
Starmer is making another, bigger gamble as well. His approach may yet take Labour back into government, but there’s a difference between being in office and being in power. Out of the handful of elections the party has won, few of them – perhaps only one – has coincided with power itself changing hands. In 1945, Labour won an election as part of a wave of working-class self-assertion, pushed into office by demobbed soldiers, wartime workers and their families who insisted on “winning the peace”. The result was nationwide transformation in the interests of small-L labour, even in the middle of a profound economic crisis. No Labour government since has matched the achievements of the party’s first majority, precisely because it has never again managed to link up so directly with a mass movement determined to claim the nation for itself.
Without that kind of powerful, demanding base in society, Labour in office will have to govern with the permission of the very forces standing in the way of a genuinely progressive agenda. Starmer will have staked his legitimacy as a force for restoration and stability on the public endorsement – or at least the passive consent – of the British establishment, and he will have no fall-back option should the next crisis force him to break that deal. His latest efforts to avoid supporting trade unions as industrial action intensifies may have irreparably alienated the party from its greatest alternative source of strength.
At best, the result of this pathological risk-aversion will be four or five years of Keir Starmer in No 10, but not in power, trying to take Britain back to the good old days as the greatest crisis of all engulfs the world: a man standing on the beach, politely asking the rising sea to turn back, baffled by the realisation that there are no more paths of least resistance.
[See also: How UK energy bills are set to surge again]