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How would Labour govern?
A Labour government would be an improvement on a Conservative government, offering competence and probity. But such a government would not be economically radical and might erode liberal democracy.
Recently in the UK, the chances of a Labour government have increased. This reflects the failings of the Boris Johnson government, mired in self-inflicted scandal, but also the assiduous work of Keir Starmer. For the first time in years, Labour has a leader who appears to be a prime minister in waiting. Stark differences with Jeremy Corbyn aside, Starmer’s stature during the Ukraine crisis contrasts with Ed Miliband. Floating voters worried whether Miliband could be trusted to represent Britain in such crises, many concluding that he could not. By contrast, Starmer appears a model of composure, radiating authority and disciplining Labour radicals.
Given these developments, it is time to ask how Labour would govern. Aside from being interesting in the UK context, this question tells us much about left-wing parties across the world. As I have written before, the left has changed in recent years, left-wingers combining radical values with moderate ones. Left-wing governments are putting these principles into practice, the record of President Biden and Welsh Labour revealing much about a prospective Starmer government. Firstly, I review the likely economic programme of a Starmer government, reflecting on wider issues of competence and probity. Secondly, I evaluate cultural implications, extending analysis to international affairs. A Starmer government would be an improvement on the Johnson government, offering relative competence and integrity and responsible foreign policy. Yet benefits can be exaggerated. Aside from limited economic influence, such a government might indulge radicals in areas such as race and gender, eroding liberal-democratic standards.
As I have argued, popular commentary grossly overstates party influence upon economic policy; academic studies demonstrating that this tends to be small. Given that median voters are concentrated in red wall seats, for the foreseeable future, Labour will probably continue levelling up, albeit with a different name. And Labour would preside over the same state apparatus as the Conservatives, making it difficult to foresee radically different outcomes. Moreover, the decreasing salience of class voting – Labour has strong support among sociocultural/public sector workers, rather than traditional working classes - suggests that redistributive patterns will be less stark than under previous Labour governments. Today, Labour’s first instinct is to protect its more affluent base, rather than low-income voters. Given these constraints, it is difficult to conclude that the economic policies of a Labour government would be transformative, particularly if the government’s parliamentary position were weak.
Notwithstanding these caveats, a Labour government would be more redistributive than the current government. Class differences in party support continue to exist and, crucially, support for redistribution infuses the history and discourse of the Labour Party. In certain cases, this enables the party to overcome constraints associated with its support base. Positions on welfare are elucidative. Despite protecting pensioners, the Conservatives have attacked unemployment benefits, reversing the £20 universal credit uplift. Labour has been hesitant to reverse previous Conservative cuts, 2017 and 2019 manifestoes being weak on this, but recent positions have been more robust, Labour opposing the universal credit cut. In government, Labour would probably continue this approach. Moreover, a Labour government would have distinct regional implications. Notwithstanding the importance of the red wall, Labour would probably pay greater attention to regions such as South Wales and South Yorkshire, reflecting stronger support in these regions.
Labour’s leadership makes its economic policy offer more plausible; for the first time in years, Labour has a frontbench that appears more competent than Conservative counterparts. More broadly, the Labour frontbench has an air of probity. Following disregard for lockdown and corruption scandals, the Johnson government has shown itself to be unfit to govern. A Starmer government might not be perfect, yet it would restore comparative integrity to Downing Street. Given the scandals of the Johnson years, this is a major consideration.
The cultural implications of a Labour government are more interesting. As I have written before, the left has undergone a transformation, left-wingers increasingly combining moderate and radical cultural positions. Ukraine is an international issue, yet Labour’s position sheds light on wider tensions. Though radicals disdain NATO, Starmer has been unambiguously pro-NATO, even threatening to remove the whip from Labour MPs who supported a motion from Stop the War Coalition (a radical group deemed sympathetic to Putin). We may baulk at Starmer’s hypocrisy – a few years ago, he campaigned for a former Stop the War Coalition chairman to be prime minister – yet this is a secondary consideration, current policy being most important. Labour is again a liberal internationalist party, unambiguously supporting NATO. After the ignominies of the Corbyn years, this is a key achievement.
Opinion in the Labour Party bolsters Starmer’s position. There is overwhelming support for Ukraine, meaning that action against radicals is comparatively easy. On a topic such as antisemitism, there are similar dynamics. One might think that radical positions have been marginalized, yet this is not so. Increasingly, left-wingers combine moderate positions on issues such as NATO membership and antisemitism with radical positions on issues such as race and gender; among the young, this trend is pronounced. Though some dispute that positions on race and gender are radical, I disagree. Crucially, stances on statue removal, anti-racism and transgender rights borrow from radical traditions, emphasizing state illegitimacy, direct action and self-identification. Social-democratic and liberal traditions are contrary, stressing legalism, gradualism and objective truth.
Rising support for such issues is worrying, yet the reaction of moderates is equally troubling. Rather than condemning these developments, moderates tend to remain silent, preference falsification ensuring that radical positions are weakly contested. The transgender issue is egregious. In the Commons, a single Labour MP openly advocates the gender-critical position. In likelihood, opposition is much higher, public polling and secret ballots of groups such as academics suggesting this. Such preference falsification is a desperate failure. But on race and gender issues, this is an international problem among governing left-wing parties, contexts as diverse as the United States and Wales showing this. Given the state of debate in the Labour Party, there is little reason to think that a Starmer government would be different.
Whilst such concerns are serious, I do not think that they justify rejection of Labour. Aside from the Johnson government’s scandalous behaviour, contrasting with Labour’s relative probity, the Ukraine crisis has made foreign policy salient, Starmer’s sense and competence bolstering Labour’s appeal. Were there an election tomorrow, I would vote for Labour. But I shall not get excited. Such a government would face serious constraints, precluding a radical economic agenda. In certain ways, liberal democracy might erode. But ultimately, the next election comes down to a single question. Would the Labour Party govern more fairly and effectively than the Conservative Party? I think that it would.
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