All seems well. The Tories are a mess and the Labour party is consistently ahead in the polls. The party’s thumping byelection victory in Rutherglen and Hamilton West is a good omen; the party won 56 seats in Scotland in 1997 and now has two. An improvement in Scotland is crucial.
But there is also a sense of unease. The prevailing mood in the country is that people want change but are not in love with Labour. People I meet ask me why the party is being so timid in the face of poverty and inequality, with the health service on its knees and the housing crisis worsening.
My view on what Keir Starmer is getting wrong is that he and his advisers misread the reasons for the 1997 victory. They seem to believe that New Labour’s watering down of policy, and the five promised on the famous pledge card, produced the win. But this is not how I remember it.
The story begins in 1983 with a disastrous defeat for Labour. The party continued to love Michael Foot, who stood down, with Neil Kinnock taking over. He, along with the NEC, updated all Labour’s policies. Radicalism remained but the policies that were hostages to fortune were dispensed with. Labour came close to a win in 1992 but didn’t make it. Some thought Neil’s presentation was part of the problem.
Then John Smith took over, clever and reliable but with deep Labour instincts. All the polling showed that Labour was going to win under him; and the people’s reaction to his death in 1994 showed the general affection for him across the country. Tony Blair became leader in 1994 and the election was won three years later. I have no doubt that Blair’s presentational skills – casting himself as the young, family man – added to the majority. The rewriting of Clause IV (which had enshrined Labour’s commitment to public ownership) in 1995 helped the presentation but had little effect in practice, and the new version contains some radical words, including a commitment to build a society where “power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few”. The people knew Labour and its values, and they were factored in when the public made the decision to vote for us. The majority was enormous, but Labour could have taken office with a smaller but still substantial majority without rowing back on some of our radicalism.
Then, power. Lots of the commitments that preceded New Labour were carried through, such as the minimum wage, class sizes under 30 and devolution. And there were very substantial increases in public spending on health and education, which were possible because we inherited a healthy economy. If Labour wins in 2024, the economic landscape will be much less forgiving. And without a willingness to make the tax system fairer, so that public services can be rescued, and to commit strongly to action on climate change and a more sustainable and just global economy, the government will simply disappoint. Cynicism and populism will grow.
It may well be that Starmer’s team plan to make a positive offer in the year leading up to the election. I dearly hope so, otherwise the constraints they have imposed on themselves and the bad state of the economy make it hard to see how a Labour government would offer much improvement. One can already foresee the Tory campaign: “You can’t trust Starmer, who ditches his promises at the drop of a hat.” An offer of hope and social justice would help overcome such attacks.
Our political system is in really bad shape. We are stuck with endless polling and focus groups but little discussion of policy and strategy. I still believe that healthy discussion and disagreement can lead to better policy. I experienced that myself in the deep and strong policy debates we had in the Department for International Development when I was the minister. Our final conclusions were rarely what anyone brought into the room but were better for that debate.
Instead, both main political parties relentlessly target the swing voter, which makes it impossible to really face up to the enormous crisis the world is facing, and be honest about the contribution that Britain might make to create a more sustainable and just future. Life for many in Britain is very hard and unlikely to get better soon. But due to our voting system, to win parties have to compete on the centre ground for the votes of a really small proportion of people. This is unhealthy and leads to growing frustration that may well break out again, as with the Brexit referendum. My greatest fear is that if people who are struggling are offered little hope, the appeal of racist populists will grow.
All that said, I think it is almost inevitable that the Tories will lose the election. The worst result for Labour would be a hung parliament, where it would need support for its programme from the Lib Dems and the SNP. But would this be such a bad thing? The outcome could be a more pluralist and less authoritarian government, and stronger commitments on inequality and the environment.