Big picture? The Rishi Sunak relaunch is failing. A year of living with a new Conservative leader now gives way to the year when power passes. This won’t be smooth. With a still relatively fresh Prime Minister and a dogged, disciplined Labour opposition, we are in for a long election campaign, an intensely cam-painful year. How long? Most MPs expect it to end next autumn. But some ministers, as the sense of decay spreads, are increasingly muttering about a spring poll.
You could say that 2023 was a year of recuperation at Westminster. We haven’t had a major election or referendum. We haven’t had a change of government anywhere in the UK. We haven’t had a new prime minister – which, by recent years’ standards, is almost a shock. No Tory coup; no open leadership battle.
Which hasn’t meant, of course, no politics. All year Rishi Sunak has been attempting to write a revised Conservative story ahead of the 2024 election, a tale of “grown-up” financial rigour and the patient, detailed application of forensic intelligence to the nation’s problems. And all year, the demons of the Tory soul have been pursuing him, snapping and ripping up his narrative as they demand a fantasy final battle about Brexit, or immigration, or “woke”, quite possibly involving warlocks and dragons.
Sunak has twisted and turned. Sometimes he emphasises his own toughness – in his determination to see through the Rwanda plan, for example – but he doesn’t have the personality of a hard-nut extremist.
So at other times, with his easy grin – less easy these days – he has sounded more consensual: promoting his Windsor Framework with the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen, unveiling the return of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary, and emphasising his family’s own migration story. But if there is a moderate leader hiding inside Sunak’s Downing Street, the angry party hasn’t allowed him out.
Sunak’s political personality throughout 2023 has been blurred. Confused about him, voters failed to rally and his authority was diminished by an infuriatingly persistent Labour lead. Throughout the year YouGov polls showed the Tory party’s vote share hovering around 28 per cent, but falling to 19 or 20 per cent in bad months.
Liz Truss was, at one point, the most unpopular prime minister in the history of British polling. Once Sunak replaced her in No 10 (unelected) in October 2022, the Tories recovered a bit but only to a relatively low position, which he has so far been unable to shift. As my colleague Rachel Cunliffe writes on page 19, the latest polling shows him doing worse than Liz Truss among people who voted in 2019 for the Conservatives. What is he saying to the shaving mirror?
Keir Starmer, therefore, became the slightly alarmed-looking custodian of a Labour polling position big enough to win him a thumping governing majority. Knowing full well that the only direction was down, he moved all year with great caution. On tax, migration, and the Hamas-Israel war he ensured there wasn’t an inch of space to allow the Tories their traditional lines of attack. By December, he was using an ancient punchline from the Blair-Mandelson playbook, which was being nice about Margaret Thatcher in the Daily Telegraph.
Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair in 1997 to a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor. Well, for Starmer the floor is not only polished but iced; and the vase is twice as heavy, with a hairline crack at the neck. This feat requires the political equivalent of a top-flight athlete’s focus and nervelessness. The frustration about Starmer and Rachel Reeves in Downing Street is gratifyingly real.
But Labour’s success has come, inevitably, at a price. It isn’t possible to both focus on being austerely responsible with the nation’s finances and simultaneously turn people’s attention towards an optimistic and expansive politics. It isn’t possible to both promise to crush migration levels, smash the people-smuggling gangs, and crack down on street disorder, while simultaneously being a movement of cheerful liberal buoyancy. These are choices. It’s like trying to grimace and grin at the same time.
The political atmosphere, therefore, of 2023 – Sunak’s eyes blurred, Starmer’s jaw clenched – is just what you might have expected in a dazed democracy limping out of a time of chaos. All year there has been a certain pallid stasis, a lack of decisive movement in any direction; political recuperation. We should not assume this continues through 2024. Although it is perfectly rational for Sunak to want to wait for an election, loss of political authority can be chaotic. Sometimes there are urgent propulsive forces even stronger than the willpower of a prime minister.
And for the country beyond Westminster, the past year hasn’t felt a bit like recuperation. It has felt much worse. Crumbling school buildings. A health service and local authorities falling flat. Too few decent homes. Bills unpaid. Millions going without. For that country there’s been no quiet, warm convalescent ward with an almost inaudible clock-tick and the murmur of wimpled nurses. This means that, looking ahead, we have a great mismatch between the urgent desire for true transformation – for the kind of proper new start that normally comes after a war, particularly if you’ve lost it – and a political culture that doesn’t offer much.
Must it be that way?
Speaking at a New Statesman conference on Labour’s path to power, in London on 28 November, the Manchester mayor Andy Burnham surprised us by saying that he thought 2024 could be a bigger and more optimistic progressive moment than 1997. Given the state of the economy that Tony Blair inherited, and Starmer’s description in a Resolution Foundation speech on 4 December of the almost post-nuclear economic landscape he says lies ahead, this might seem crackers.
Burnham’s argument was that Britain was now much better politically wired in the English regions and through devolution to kick-start investment and public service reform than it had been when Blair took over, and that Starmer did not have the weight of liberal expectation his predecessor shouldered. In that ravaged landscape, in other words, he has the space to over-deliver.
To hear a Labour politician speaking with such energy and confidence about the near future as Burnham did sent a jolt through the room, such as you seldom get from the shadow cabinet. Burnham has a big platform in Manchester, but he isn’t constrained by collective responsibility or the intimidating effect of a raptor-like national media. It was a brief glimpse of an alternative reality.
I sympathise with Labour politicians who would, on balance, rather not throw away the next election. After a year so dominated by bad news rolling in from abroad, they would be foolish not to look at 2024 with anxiety, asking above all about what the consequences would be of Russian victory in Ukraine – something which, if Donald Trump returns to the White House, is now quite possible and would transform all of Europe.
Yet the mood of the year ahead cannot be one in which the political class in general decides it isn’t sensible to give people hope. We need passion, fluency, a little laughter.
That is why I would urge everyone who can to read Ending Stagnation: A New Economic Strategy for Britain, a proposed national economic programme from the Resolution Foundation, the Centre for Economic Performance, and the Nuffield Foundation. Full disclosure; it isn’t big on jokes. But it offers perspectives we don’t get from politicians. Its recommendations include making a distinction between public investment, which is nearly 50 per cent higher in other OECD countries compared to the UK, and day-to-day public spending; taxing wealth, which has risen from three times national income in the 1980s to seven times in 2023; reconnecting benefit levels with wages; focusing on Britain being a “services superpower” – the world’s second biggest exporter of services behind the US; and the need to boost Manchester and Birmingham as centres for high-value services.
This takes us to Brexit. The report says that the high-productivity parts of British manufacturing are most at risk, and Britain must try to negotiate a “UK protocol” to restore lost benefits and a single market for goods, based on the agreement that Northern Ireland has in the Windsor Framework. This could boost GDP by up to 2 per cent. It isn’t a potential deal now but may be available in the future.
One of the themes of the report is how unusual the past decade plus has been in the British story. Between the Second World War and 2000, “real wages nearly quadrupled, while state spending on healthcare as a share of the economy almost trebled”. To underline that, real wages grew by an average of 33 per cent a decade from 1970 to 2007 but then fell below zero in the 2010s. Some 15 years of lost wage growth has cost the average worker £10,700 a year.
It is only by confronting such hard truths that we can rally the progressive energy to start to change them. Labour can win a general election next year by taking tiny shuffling steps and clutching that vase until the sweat pours down Starmer’s face. But after that, hard truth is not enough. Morale and optimism matter in any national story. With Labour unable to promise that it won’t oversee a second age of austerity, it’s beginning to feel as if immiseration will be as good it gets for the first few years of the next government. In a country already so battered and angry, is that safe? What will be the mood of Labour-voting public sector workers by the mid 2020s if everything in their world seems to be getting worse?
Once in power, Labour can only retain it with a more self-confident approach. In office, when times get tough, the party will need instinctive support from its voters; and a Labour government will need friends. Campaign in prose if they must; but let them govern, please, with at least a little poetry.
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special