On Getting the Tories Out
Labour have won a historic result in Selby and Ainsty. They won despite the Tories having a majority of more than 20,000 votes. Labour now have a majority of 4,161 and the youngest MP in Keir Mather, aged only 25. All the portents are good for Labour, all of the outlook for the Tories is dire. But as the fanfare dies-down it’s worth two notes of caution. The first is that the results will accelerate the rightward shift of the Labour Party by Starmer – the second that this will inevitably mean his victory will be a pyrrhic one.
Here’s some reasons why re-creating Blairism won’t work and why ‘Getting the Tories Out’ is a failed meme.
Tony Blair has been seen hovering about Sir Keir Starmer unsure whether he’s Banquo, Jacob Marley, or Timothy Claypole. But certainly Blairism haunts the Labour Party even more than Jeremy Corbyn. As writer and musician Darren McGarvey has written: “Blair is a political father figure whose presence they find reassuring because he always sounds like he knows what to do in an age where top-flight politicians appear so out of their depth … and this speak to the delusions of voters who now claim to be politically homeless in the absence of such a transfixing figure – they want a politician whose rhetoric reassuringly obscures the class conflicts and inequalities which entrench their economic advantages and cultural sensibilities.”
Clearly Starmer is not up to the job in that task of trans-fixation – his abilities as a snake-oil man are not of the calibre of Blair – and his ability to provide the necessary ‘reassuring obscurity’ is lacking. But this is not about the relative personal skills or charisma of Tony versus Keir, it is about the social conditions and time we live in which makes the regurgitation of a re-energised New Labour a fantasy. But McGarvey’s point is also well made, that voters are complicit in self-deceit: make climate change disappear but make sure no change ever effects me; make the air cleaner but don’t stop me driving everywhere; make public services better but don’t increase taxes; take away nasty child poverty but remember to punish the feckless scroungers.
But choices and circumstances are far harsher today than anyone prematurely celebrating Labour’s victory are realising.
As the economist James Headway has pointed out, Starmer’s Labour team have effectively boxed-themselves in to spending commitments predicated on ‘future growth’. They have ruled out taxing the rich and they seem unaware of where we are.
Meadway writes: “Probably needless to say that this is social and political calamity waiting to happen. This isn’t the 1990s and early 2000s, where a few tight spending years could be borne out and living standards were largely improving. We are set to get “reformism without reforms” with a vengeance, in conditions of unprecedented ecological stress and turmoil with an increasingly organised and funded radical right waiting in the wings. The stage is being set for a further authoritarian lurch. It indicates, in sharp relief, the general crisis of social democracy which, since WW2 and in all its forms, has depended on sustained economic growth to balance otherwise potentially competing claims of capital and labour. Hence Labour’s clinging to “growth” now. But what if growth is going to be much harder than in the past? What in a world of recurring and worsening extreme weather events, crop failures, food and water shortages, and the conflicts all these help produce, would make anyone think “growth” in general is guaranteed?”
We live then in times of political churn – an ahistorical ageographic ascientific era. We (rightly) slag off the post-truth politics of America, but we here too have a version of it where people want a form of Magical Politics delivered with a smile and a twinkle in the eye. None of the structural problems – the long-term social-ecological issues that have been allowed to fester for decades with a combination of tweaks and victim-blaming, misdirection and co-optation – are going to be addressed here. Just Stop Oil are just people to be battered, poverty campaigners are just people to be bludgeoned with ‘pragmatism’ and ‘real world’ politics. This week alone we hear from Sudan there are biblically desperate scenes as more than 3.1 million people displaced by war. But the U.K. is not accepting applications for asylum any more from anyone unless it issues prior visas. As the Illegal Migration Bill passes into law Rishi Sunak triumphantly tweets “You can’t claim asylum. You can’t misuse our modern slavery protections. You can’t make false human rights claims. You can’t stay. I’m leaving no stone unturned to stop the boats.”
What will Labour do about that? Nothing at all. On 24 October last year Starmer admitted that there was little difference on immigration between Labour and the Conservatives. On the 6 December he said he supported tagging migrants via GPS. On 17 June this year he said he was happy to be branded a fiscal conservative and refused to commit to increased public spending. The result from Selby and Ainsty will only embolden Starmer’s team.
Casting aside the question (for now) of whether ‘growing the economy’ (endlessly, forever and ever) on a finite planet is a good idea, Meadway’s point is that it isn’t currently possible. Blairism can’t just be re-animated from the 1990s in post-covid Britain where politics and the economy have been fundamentally altered. Dressing up as Conservatives to get into office while celebrating “getting the Tories out” has always been a terrible idea, now it looks like a suicidal one. Among the triumphalism it is not clear what the consequences of replacing a Tory government of unrivalled brutality with a Labour one of unrivalled self-deception will be. We seem to be suffering a collective short-term memory loss where nothing sticks. No political lesson seems to be retained. We’ve all been here before. Blair’s resurrection is a blur of political amnesia as if we’ve all had a blow to the head.
Yet a good part of the trauma we’ve experienced under Conservative rule was due to New Labour. Ed Miliband wasn’t the heir to Blair, David Cameron was. Part of this experience is to pretend that the social consequences of austerity, the covid pandemic and an eternity of Tory rule just hasn’t happened, hasn’t really changed things and doesn’t need a response, or to believe that the geopolitical results of Russia’s invasion hasn’t destabilised Europe, or that the climate breakdown is just about inconvenient protestors. This is to live in a delusion. Until Labour means anything about any of these issues it’s not worthy of celebrating.