Will Labour's approach change if they win a majority?
The big question in Westminster is the extent to which the Labour party will pivot away, after the election, from super-cautious stances on tax and spending, Europe, and social issues, towards a more radical agenda.
The issue is not that Labour lacks vision. If you take their “missions” literally their pledges are far more ambitious than any other opposition party in recent history. It’s not even that they currently lack the specific policies to achieve these missions. Oppositions rarely work up detailed plans as they don’t have the resources, and in a few areas, like planning and labour relations, they do have some genuinely bold proposals. The problem is that self-imposed constraints, particularly on fiscal policy, make it impossible to see how the missions, or indeed much less ambitious goals for improving public services or reducing child poverty, could be achieved. This is even more concerning when one considers the state of the public finances, as per last week’s post, and that just to stand still any government would likely have to make substantial cuts and/or raise taxes and/or increase borrowing.
Earlier in the summer Jonn Elledge wrote a piece for the New Statesman on how the political dynamics would change dramatically after a Labour election win, giving them space to shift from their current risk aversion:
“The commenting classes are not remotely prepared for what it’d mean if the next election result looks even slightly like the polls suggest. A lot of things everyone ‘knows’ about politics right now will simply no longer hold true.”
For instance: Labour would be in charge of the Treasury and the economic rules they use; the (confused) obsession with the “red wall” would dissipate, with those seats turning red again, and other voter groups would take priority; voices that currently seem important because they have the ear of the government would cease to matter; the media would need access to the new government, and so on.
Jonn got a lot of unfair criticism from people, mostly on the Labour left, claiming he was being hopelessly naïve in thinking Starmer and Reeves would want to pivot. But all he argued was that there would be space to shift if they wanted to:
“That doesn’t mean the party will actually use this political space, of course: it must be at least possible that the cynics are right, this isn’t an electoral strategy and Starmer’s Labour is exactly as gutless and unambitious as it seems.”
It’s impossible to second guess exactly what Labour’s leadership is thinking right now. I suspect even they don’t know how they’d react to this kind of space opening up. Partly because they’re so focused on winning the election and partly because, however much you prepare, government is just so completely different to opposition that it’s hard to imagine.
Politics is highly dependent on context and circumstance. And politicians, however powerful, operate with constraints. Whatever Starmer might personally want to do he has to take into account party management, the behaviour of the markets, the capacity of civil servants, legal challenges, and all sorts of other factors.
But what we can do is look in more detail at the political space Jonn talks about, the ways in which Starmer and Reeves could choose to use it if they wanted to, and how they might end up being forced to use it even if they don’t.
So let’s assume Labour win next year with a decent majority of 50-100. What happens to the political dynamics? And how fast?
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