In the run-up to the 1979 general election, the Labour prime minister James Callaghan is said to have observed that every so often in politics a sea-change comes along when nothing you do or say can affect the decision the public has already made, and that this was one of those times. He then went on to demonstrate how perceptive a politician he was by losing.
Turning points can sometimes involve a curious mix of the momentous and the mundane. In the years leading up to 1997, regardless of how much Tony Blair dazzled with his pledges, all many voters could think about were the words “Black Wednesday” and “Brown Envelopes”. So, out the Tories went and a new day dawned, did it not?
It’s as if, as a country, we need to hold on to a few solid, commonly remembered events to help take us over these larger and often emotional inflection points. We know Rishi Sunak’s goose is cooked, but underneath the huge cost-of-living crisis and universal mortgage hell, we’ll take to the voting booth those little moments that seemed to define for us a party out of touch.
There’s Jacob Rees-Mogg lying horizontal on his Commons bench like he’s trying to avoid being picked for games; Sunak at a Sainsbury’s petrol station looking awkwardly at his contactless payment card like it was a mouldy pasty about to leak over his trousers; Liz Truss staring at the press pack like she’d just materialised from the 16th century and didn’t know what all these strange new people with wires were doing in her room. And there’s Boris Johnson tackling the Covid pandemic while wearing a party hat. Once it’s in our heads, it can’t be dislodged.
I’m writing this before they start shutting ticket offices at train stations. Once that happens, I urge Tory MPs not only to step down, but to leave the country. Imagine shire passengers unable to get on a train, or jumping on one and getting fined for not having a ticket, or giving up and going back home with the networks’ weasel words about “enhancing the customer experience” howling inside their heads like the turbocharged merde-talk it is. It’s no understatement to say that quite a few of those voters will turn highly rabid.
The point I felt Sunak’s fate was sealed was early in June this year, on an episode of Channel 4’s Gogglebox, when one of the regulars, Izzi, summed up everything by saying, “They’ve been in too long and everything’s gone to shit.” Ten words from Izzi, clinically capturing the public mood. There’s no going back from that. If that was all Labour put on its posters, the party would still win.
[See also: Labour is an ultra-low ambition zone]
Except, the world’s on fire. If we’re going to look at how the micro and macro will play out in the next election, it doesn’t get more macro than a threat to the planet. And there’s now a growing electorate looking for politicians who don’t merely promise to be not as bad as the other lot, but who understand the urgency of what’s needed, and can express it with passionate conviction. For them, steady-as-she-goes isn’t an option; they see politics like they see life, as a fight. They are not after financial recklessness, but do seek boldness and originality. And hope, too: it’s a fully emotional offer they’re looking for as well as a policy one.
And so we come to Keir Starmer. He was recently criticised for saying Labour won’t be seeking to lift the two-child benefit cap. Full disclosure here: I’m patron of the Child Poverty Action Group, and a repeal of the cap is something we’ve been campaigning for this year. Doing so would take 270,000 families out of poverty, and, as the Labour MP Stella Creasy once argued, scrapping it could be cost-effective since it was “potentially costing more than it is saving” in the strain it was putting on local services.
I mention this here as just one of a number of austerity measures that have been utilised by governments in a decades-long game of shifty maths. One example is the cuts in housing benefit that let the Department for Work and Pensions say it has kept down costs. In reality the measure has made more families homeless and further dented the budgets of local authorities that are obliged to house them, at greater cost than what is saved by central government.
So much is, alas, a matter of political priorities rather than economic necessity. Business fraud by most estimates costs the country between ten and 30 times more than benefit fraud, but we don’t see poster campaigns urging us to phone in if we see white-collar scroungers abusing the system.
If a party leader wanted to be truly bold, to demonstrate that even in the most hostile of economic climates they can make a transformative difference to people’s lives, then all they have to do is get to grips with the slippery and demoralising accountancy hoax that has been bogging us down for so long.
The opportunity is there for a leader to crack departmental heads together, get central government and local government joined up again, and demonstrate the economic benefit in spending strategically and wisely, in ways that save money long-term but immediately lift lives and bring hope.
Otherwise, what will be the one image of them lodging in our collective memory as we go into the voting booth? That they fought with passion, or shrugged and said, “I know, but what can we do?”
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special