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The Labour Party Is Britain’s Lost Opposition


Britain’s Labour Party has been out of power for eleven years. The Party’s most recent Prime Minister was Gordon Brown, a complex, often frustrated figure, who coped admirably with the 2008 financial crisis but lost a general election, in 2010, to a coalition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Since then, under three successive Conservative leaders, the British population has undergone a self-defeating program of austerity, the tedium and discord of Brexit, and the unnecessary loss of thousands of lives during the government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic. Even before COVID-19, life expectancy had flatlined in the United Kingdom for the first time in a hundred years. This fall, as the brief British summer flickered and flared out, daily life has become increasingly dysfunctional. Grocery stores have been hit with supply-chain problems, caused by a combination of the pandemic and a Brexit-induced absence of immigrant truck drivers. A number of small energy suppliers have gone bust. Wholesale electricity prices have tripled in Britain in the past twelve months, and there is currently a national gas shortage, caused mostly by panic buying. On October 6th, the government plans to cut around a hundred million pounds a month from Universal Credit, a benefit payment received by some six million people. The future looks hard. Earlier this week, David Morris, a Conservative member of Parliament, told the BBC that the country’s present atmosphere recalls Britain’s “winter of discontent” in 1978, which is political shorthand for a season of chaos, strikes, and a terminal feeling of malaise. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is a shirker. Sixty per cent of voters do not trust him.

And yet Labour remains peripheral. In December, 2019, under its previous, left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the Party suffered its worst election result since 1935. Corbyn was succeeded by Keir Starmer, who was meant to bring Labour back into the mainstream. Starmer, who is fifty-nine, comes off like a centrist action figure. Before he became an M.P., he was the chief prosecutor for England and Wales, and a human-rights lawyer. He won a big case against McDonald’s; he helped to abolish the death penalty in Uganda; he has a happening hair style. The hope projected onto Starmer was that he would somehow marry the radicalism and energy of the best parts of Corbyn’s agenda with a greater sense of patriotism and better suits. It hasn’t worked out that way. In local elections held in May—the Party’s first test under Starmer—Labour won thirty per cent of the vote, ten points behind the Conservatives. As it did during the Brexit campaign of 2016 (when the Party opposed leaving the E.U.) and in every election since, Labour continued to shed voters from white working-class communities, who reliably voted for the Party throughout the twentieth century but who have been put off by its metropolitan and liberal turn—a trend that began more than a decade ago, and accelerated under Corbyn. So far, Starmer has seemed unable to undo the damage. Eighteen months into his leadership, opinion polls still put the Conservatives, and their program of national disarray, five to seven points ahead of Labour.


Starmer’s supporters argue that he has been hampered by the pandemic, which has made it difficult for him to get his message across. In recent days, thousands of Labour members, activists, politicians, and hangers-on assembled in Brighton, on England’s south coast, for the Party’s annual conference. It was a chance for Starmer to relaunch himself. Before the conference began, he published a fourteen-thousand-word essay, called “The Road Ahead,” which sought to lay out his vision for the country. As with most things that Starmer says, there was little to disagree with. He described a recent listening tour he had taken around the country, to understand voters’ priorities: “I have been struck by the complicated, sometimes contradictory way people are feeling. It is not rare to encounter optimism, worry, joy and reflection all during one chat.” There was no sign of the clear, but sometimes outlandish, policy ideas of the Corbyn era: a transaction tax on financial firms, free broadband for everyone, the nationalization of railways and utilities. But there was nothing to replace them, either. “The Road Ahead” offered ten principles for a future Labour government, including: “If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be rewarded fairly.” Writing in the Guardian, Rafael Behr congratulated Starmer on identifying “opportunity” and “security” as two promising themes with which to attack Johnson’s unstable government, but despaired of the vague padding around them. “Two cleverly chosen words at the heart of Starmer’s pamphlet stake out a viable position,” Behr wrote. “The problem is in the other 13,998.”

Veterans of Labour’s most recent government emphasize how far the Party has fallen. “The emphatic nature of that defeat in 2019 underlines the enormous change that Labor has to go through to become acceptable to the electorate again,” Pat McFadden, a Labour M.P., told me. McFadden was an adviser to Tony Blair and a minister in Brown’s government. His constituency is in Wolverhampton, a former manufacturing town and Labour stronghold in the west Midlands. In 2019, two of the town’s three seats fell to the Conservatives for the first time since the nineteen-eighties. “We were almost wiped out,” McFadden said. “And you could tell a similar story in other working-class parts of the U.K.” McFadden is part of Starmer’s economic team, which has been noticeably reticent during the extraordinary spending and fiscal expansion that has accompanied the pandemic on both sides of the Atlantic. Johnson’s government is on track to borrow around five hundred billion pounds, and speaks constantly of “levelling up” the country—correcting decades of regional inequalities with a wave of public investment. In response, Labour has focussed primarily on government waste and allegations of sweetheart deals and corruption, rather than on how it would spend the money. The Party remains traumatized by the Conservative critique that it overspent while in power and helped cause the financial crisis. I asked McFadden if it was frustrating to stick to such a cautious script, even while the world had moved on. “It’s just a recognition of where we are,” he said. “Economic assumptions have changed over the past decade. They definitely have, and we understand that. But the task of winning people’s trust is still there.”

You can see history passing the Party by. Since Labour lost power, British politics has undergone two great upheavals—Brexit and the rise of Scottish nationalism—both of which have been motivated by questions of identity and belonging. Labour has yet to formulate a convincing response to either. In “The Road Ahead,” Starmer acknowledged the skill of the Conservatives in riding these changes. “The strength of the Tory party is in no small part due to its ability to shed its skin,” he wrote. Embracing Brexit and falling in behind the chummy nationalism of Johnson, the Conservatives have managed to assemble a broad but fragile coalition that stretches from wealthy, tax-shy commuters in the London suburbs to postindustrial communities in the English northwest, who are crying out for investment and support.

Labour, by contrast, doesn’t seem to know which way to turn—even though millions of voters seem to have already made up their minds. According to Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford, political scientists at the University of Manchester, it was at some point between 2010 and 2015 that university graduates and ethnic minorities overtook white voters without college degrees among the Party’s electoral support. Although the actual level of support for Labour among the population did not change greatly, its voters did. “The situation was akin to filling a bath with cold water, then opening the plug and turning the hot tap on at the same time,” Sobolewska and Ford write, in their recent book, “Brexitland.” “The level of water remains static, but the temperature of the water changes rapidly.”

Corbyn’s Labour Party wooed its urban, progressive base constantly, championing tax raises for the rich, and policies to address the climate crisis and the high cost of living for young people. So far, Starmer’s only definitive move has been to jettison those ideas—which has infuriated the left wing of the Party, who feel betrayed by his earlier apparent sympathy for them. (Starmer served as Corbyn’s Brexit spokesman.) “Keir won in the Labour leadership election on a promise of sticking with, let’s call it, eighty per cent of Corbynism,” one of Corbyn’s former advisers told me. “That was entirely a false prospectus.” At the start of the conference in Brighton, Starmer made a surprising move to modify Labour’s election rules, which were blamed, in part, for his predecessor’s takeover of the Party, in 2015. “They are systematically going to try to change the rules to prevent Corbyn ever happening again,” the former adviser said. I hadn’t reported on Labour’s internal machinations for a while, and I had forgotten how vicious the factional infighting can be. The official described Starmer’s team as “a Blairite tribute act” and Starmer as an empty vessel. “What are the key ideas that define him? I mean, the answer is there aren’t any,” the official said. “It’s awful.”

Starmer took the stage around noon on Wednesday, to give his first leader’s speech, in person, to the Party. It was, by a distance, the most pressured moment of his political career. But he appeared relaxed, smiling broadly. “Here we are at last, and I can’t tell you how good it feels,” Starmer said. “I’ve waited seventeen months, twenty-five days, and two hours to appear in front of you.” Then he spoke for an hour and a half. Starmer is nothing if not thorough. Unlike most other British politicians, he has a meaningful backstory. He talked about his mother, who was a nurse and suffered years of debilitating illness. Starmer quoted W. H. Auden’s “Horae Canonicae,” which it is difficult to imagine either Johnson or Corbyn ever venturing to do, when describing his father’s dignified work as a toolmaker:

“How beautiful it is, / that eye-on-the-object look.”

The conference hall, like the Labour Party, was not entirely rapt. There was some heckling from disgruntled left-wing activists, which Starmer seemed to relish—as an opportunity to show that the Party was moving on from its protest days, under Corbyn. “Shouting slogans or changing lives?” he responded, to applause. “We can chant all day.” Starmer described Johnson as trivial and a showman. But when he articulated his own suggestions for how to mend Britain’s many differences—the worn fabric of everyday life—they weren’t substantial, either. Starmer referred to “a contribution society,” which is one of those techno-junk political phrases that you hope never to hear again, alongside a pitch to improve mental-health services and a plan to insulate people’s homes. He enunciated his values—“work, care, equality, security”—and cycled back to Auden again. Starmer is as convincing as anyone when talking about the ills of the nation and how much he wants to put them right. But, when he talks about what a Labour government would actually do, he sounds like he is still reaching in the dark. One of the more insightful things that Starmer said was perhaps more memorable than he meant it to be: “In a way, the more we expose the inadequacy of this government, the more it presses the question back on us. If they are so bad, what does it say about us?”

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The Labour Party Is Britain’s Lost Opposition