Comment writer Louis Redway explores the chances and opportunities of a potential Labour government

Written by Louis Redway

Growing up in the UK you would be forgiven for thinking that we have opposing parties just for decoration. The Conservatives view themselves as the ‘natural party of government’ and for the last thirteen years, that’s how it’s felt. On reflection, the Corbyn years feel more like a fever dream than a well-oiled project for government. But with growing doses of incompetence, turmoil, and lethargy, are the years of anguish coming to an end? 

Voters in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire certainly think so. The by-election in Tamworth led to an almost 24% swing to labour from the conservatives. In Mid-Bedfordshire Labour overturned a majority of more than 24,000 to claim victory, with Labour leader Keir Starmer hailing the results a “game changer.” The mood in the country has shifted and opinion polling bears that out, but beware of the by-election.

By-elections can be ill-fated guides to predicting a party’s electoral fate. They are often fought on highly localised issues, with an exaggerated media focus that can lend itself to odd, or perhaps inflated election results. Indeed, both elections were held in seats that were home to conservative MPs recently forced to resign in the shape of Chis Pincher and former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. With that being said, these results are seismic. These are not the type of seats Labour would expect to be winning, and importantly, even need to be winning to gain a substantial majority in the next general election – yet they are quite clearly up for play. 

Hypocrisy remains a powerful charge in politics

Here, some of the causes of this discontent and disillusionment are helpful to appreciate. It is not that a party of government cannot make blunders and still win re-election. A substantial difference here is the scope and depth of failure by successive Conservative administrations. These failures have achieved a unique level of media cut through and an incredible impact on people’s lives. COVID-19 transformed the country and although in public debate culpability remains somewhat disputed. ‘Partygate’ and other COVID failures clearly ‘cut through.’ Once revealed, they were simply too shamefully brazen to cover up.

Hypocrisy remains a powerful charge in politics, especially in moments of supposed national unity. Voters are accused of having short memories, but they remember when incompetence affects their lives. Indeed, the calamities have continued. The titanic effects of Liz Truss’ mini-budget almost brought down the economy and had deep impacts on people’s personal finances. The recent concrete crisis caused extensive panic and the shutdown of hundreds of schools.. A holy trinity of deceit, incompetence and stupidity is enough to curtail any re-election bid.

If it is true that the labour train has really left the station, then what can they do? The next government will continue to be heavily constrained by economic realities. Inflation and interest rates are high, productivity and growth are low. Some of the causes are recent, the hangover from Brexit, the pandemic, and the Russia-Ukraine war. Others are structural, such as a lack of affordable housing, faltering and underfunded public services and economic and geographical inequalities. It means labour cannot afford to promise too much. And in my view, it should mean a greater focus on the ‘how’ of government, not just the ‘what’ and ‘why.’ David Runciman at the University of Cambridge is the origin of my thought. What and why are traditionally the focus of government policy for obvious reasons.

However, if we want a politics that is genuinely capable of transforming the country again, then it is essential to transform some of the messy and antiquated practices of the British state. The Gordon Brown-led Commission on UK constitutional reform was a positive step in this direction. It remains to be seen what proposals will feature in Labour’s manifesto. A hint, we will need all of them.

A holy trinity of deceit, incompetence, and stupidity

A Labour government will be highly constrained by the economic terrain. Yet there is much opportunity too, the actions of New Labour on Devolution, the Human Rights Act and the Supreme Court are a guide in this regard. However, a Starmer government must do more. In the United States, such is the distaste for government that demonstrates the state’s ability to deliver a powerful ideological message. This ideological distaste may not be as potent in the UK, but public apathy is. In an age of uncertainty and mismanagement, a demonstration of government competency is a powerful antidote.

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