New Times,
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Labour’s biggest threat is an electorate that has given up

Keir Starmer should be worried less by a potential Tory surge and more by a creeping pessimism among voters.

By Andrew Marr

But what lies beneath? From here to the horizon, the sea-surface of the year ahead seems clear enough. The election will come probably in November, as interest rates fall. There will be a personalised struggle about tax and spend between two parties whose macroeconomic positioning is relatively similar. Through much of the year the Labour Party will be comfortably ahead in the polls. The lead will narrow.

Most commentators agree with all that. Also, there will be events. But are there, meanwhile, strong currents below the surface that might disrupt Keir Starmer’s course to victory? Here are a few thoughts.

First, the opposition should not bet too heavily on economic downturn. Earlier forecasts proved too pessimistic. Last year the International Monetary Fund, having predicted a shrinkage of the UK economy, had to reverse-ferret and acknowledge likely growth, albeit modest. The Bank of England had predicted the longest recession in the century, and had to admit its bleak forecast was wrong, a mistake it openly acknowledged. Many private sector economics teams made similar mistakes.

Why? It is partly a market question: bad news, for good evolutionary reasons, attracts our attention better than good news. If you want to be noticed, be a Cassandra. But it’s also that diversified modern economies with underlying strengths – and we have strengths as well as weaknesses – often rebound quickly from disaster. One of the most interesting books I read during the Christmas break was a new biography of Claude Monet, which emphasised how swiftly France recovered from the catastrophes of 1870-71: defeat by Prussia and the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune.

The French revival was led by pioneering entrepreneurs (do they have a word for that?) and defiant cultural energy. With inflation and interest rates on the way down, it’s not impossible that there may be echoes of 19th-century France in a post-pandemic, post-Ukraine-invasion Britain this year. Early signs of renewal could come from the start-up sector, where the UK already performs well (the research centre StartupBlink ranks Britain second in the world for attracting and retaining start-ups). We have no Monet of our own – David Hockney is in Normandy – but in television, film, theatre and gaming there are signs of optimism, with the creative industries growing over the past decade at a notably faster rate than the wider economy.

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[See also: Can Keir Starmer restore faith in politics?]

What might this mean for Labour? Above all, it would be wise not to spend this spring “talking Britain down”. The record of economic failure during the Conservative years – relative to other similar economies – is now well enough understood. The explanatory narrative of zigzagging policy and self-indulgent leadership feuds is also hardly a secret. Voters know perfectly well how badly off they feel. Yet I don’t feel that this will be a good year for miserabilism.

Starmer’s New Year message of hope was therefore the right one: “The power of the vote. The potential for national renewal. The chance, finally, to turn the page, lift the weight off our shoulders, unite as a country, and get our future back.” And a degree of economic optimism provides Labour, too, with a rarely acknowledged political boost.

Even up in the fresh air, among the waves, it is obvious that the Tories want to fight on the economy, and in particular against the “£28bn a year” green recovery project. “If they want that fight on ‘borrow to invest’ I’m absolutely up for that… bring it on,” Starmer told Sky News. But some in Labour’s top team are keen to unwind the promise further. (It has already been delayed to the second half of the next parliament, and would include current government spending, meaning it amounts to less – around £20bn – as George Eaton writes.)

Endless tactical retreat, trying to match Tory tax cuts instead of investing, would be a grievous error. The country understands the need for a response to global warming and for economic modernisation. Far better to run towards this argument, exploiting, for instance, the resignation as an MP of the prominent Tory “green” Chris Skidmore – a former minister for science and, in 2019, an interim minister for energy – in protest at Rishi Sunak’s decision to issue more oil and gas licences in the North Sea. Bring it on, indeed: Labour, just as much as the Conservative Party, needs definition.

Meanwhile, a degree of cautious economic optimism cuts both ways: if falling inflation and then interest rates allow for Tory tax cuts now, they also enable Labour investment in the near future. No 10 cannot both deride the past pessimism of economic forecasters and cling to it as the reason why Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, is unable to reinvest in Britain.

This takes me to another strong undercurrent. Will Labour’s reinvestment really bring transformative growth? Traditionally, pessimism was the property of the right: a world-weary view of human nature and the impossibility of state-led improvement used to be anchored in conservative thought. Progressives by contrast were optimists, almost to synonym level. But this seems to be flipping. Today we live in an age of progressive pessimism: despite the polls, we are told: “Labour probably can’t win.” Even if it does, the task of national renewal is too great; they will flunk it. And if they don’t flunk it, success won’t last long – Britain is in a doom loop. The Tories, far further to the right, will surge back. Then there’s Trump. It’s all hopeless.

In part, progressive pessimism derives from an accurate understanding of modern Britain’s relative lack of heft in a dangerous world. It may also be a natural reaction to the vacuous, grinning boosterism of the Johnson-Truss years. But fundamentally it bubbles up from feelings of disgust and contempt for the corrosive effects of consumerism – a feeling that “gone-shopping Britain” has become a childish, self-pitying, inattentive and spoiled culture, lacking the requisite sense of public virtue and communal empathy on which progressive politics rests.

This is a terribly dangerous argument. It echoes Bertolt Brecht’s dry 1953 suggestion that it would be simpler for the government “To dissolve the people/And elect another”. Restoring Britain requires more than better government. It needs a public-spirited political culture – and optimism. It rests, in the old phrase, on those who “go above and beyond”; think of Alan Bates, leader of the sub-postmasters’ crusade for justice.

Progressive optimism is the opposite of a hyper-liberal splitting of communities into micro-victimhoods and the flagellation of our common history – an imported American politics that can never be satisfied and sees every act of leadership as embryonic betrayal. That is just the bitter aftertaste of genuine progressivism.

I was pleased to hear Starmer applaud those who “spent the last 14 years volunteering to keep your park clean, your library open, for children to have opportunities… [or] serving our country, whether in scrubs or the uniform of your regiment”. At some point we may even get to a place where on the left, words like duty and service are not met with an eye-roll.

These may seem abstruse, even irrelevant, currents, but they will be part of the story of 2024. Labour cannot win without embracing good economic news, or taking part in real arguments about tax cuts versus investment, or defeating progressive pessimism. As inflation falls, a defensive, clenched politics won’t work.

The danger isn’t a Tory surge. The more Rishi Sunak insists on his one-man campaign for change, the more he emphasises the broken, scattered nature of the party behind him. The danger is a general, quiet walking away from political engagement in this most electorally important of years – what Starmer calls “the shrug of the shoulder”. Below the surface, the most dangerous current, one that could upset all the predictions of pollsters and commentators both, is the morale of those who barely notice politics at all.

[See also: Rishi Sunak is digging his own grave]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously