The Daily Telegraph

Labour’s new coalition may be doomed from the start

Future fissures in Starmer’s party are already emerging. We’re entering a new era of crash-and burn politics

- Madeline grant

It may seem like ancient history now, but cast your minds back through the mists of time, all the way to December 2019. For Labour, the party is over. Gone are Blyth Valley, Bolsover, even Sedgefield. This was hailed as a new era; the beginning of a decade of Tory rule. But now, barely three years after that election, the voting coalition that delivered that apparently unassailab­le result has imploded and it is Labour that is poised on the brink of victory.

Meanwhile, the Tories squabble over the leadership like a sack of hairless cats fighting over a comb; none of them knows what they’d do with it if they won, and the comb will probably prove useless anyway. One Nation-ers blame the mini-budget; even the vast energy bailout, on “libertaria­n jihadists”. Free-marketeers blame Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng for giving tax cuts a bad name. MPS blame members for picking Truss; they in turn blame MPS for not putting any of their preferred candidates through to the final two. Just about the only thing keeping the PM in No10 is her divided party’s inability to agree on a replacemen­t.

Over the past three years we have learnt that nothing is sacred, that vast majorities can crash and burn as quickly as they arrive. And, unlike in the US, where partisansh­ip can withstand the most extreme tests of tribal loyalty (after January 6, Donald Trump’s final approval rating still stood at 30 per cent), here in Britain that era looks well and truly over. What does it all mean for our politics?

Veteran backbenche­r Sir Edward Leigh alluded to this when addressing the new head of the Tory junta (Hunta?) in the Commons on Monday. If Tories can’t hope to reduce the tax burden, even to its level at the start of this Parliament, “what is our vision?” he asked the Chancellor. The opposition benches giggled and chanted: “Hear, Hear!” But it’s not hard to see Labour facing a similar identity crisis in time.

Polling only gives a snapshot of opinion – sometimes an illusory one (remember when Jo Swinson was being touted as a prospectiv­e PM off the back of a few glowing polls?) But if they are even half-right this time, Labour has a staggering voting coalition on its hands. It’s predicted to win seats that have returned Conservati­ve MPS since the Great Reform Act. And if even a version of this comes to pass, the party will face precisely the same obstacles as the Tories.

Winning majorities may not be easy, but 2019 proved it is at least doable. The real difficulty is maintainin­g them. How do you keep the Weald of Kent and the Western Isles onside when the only thing they have in common is anger with the Tories? Even Tony Blair’s personal-political charisma only managed that for a few years.

Future fissures in Labour are already emerging. On Monday, Rachel Reeves pivoted from complainin­g about fiscal ill-discipline to attacking Tory austerity via Jeremy Hunt’s role in the Coalition. And yet, as Truss has learnt in the most brutal way imaginable, the tectonic plates on that front have shifted. The cheap money era is over and borrowing will be far dearer for everyone. Economic orthodoxy has prevailed – and with it a new consensus that sees shrinking the state as unavoidabl­e.

For how long can Labour be anti-austerity and born-again fiscal hawks at once? And this time, unlike Tony Blair, it won’t be inheriting an economic boom, a traditiona­l precursor for Labour expenditur­e plans. The Tories may face an existentia­l crisis, but if their opponents no longer support big spending then what are they really “for” either?

The same is true of the public sector. Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, talks a good game on reform, but solutions such as online appointmen­ts and “cutting NHS waste” seem more like sticking plasters than the structural change required. And for every Wes, there will be many more in Labour in hoc to the status quo or vested-interest groups within the health service. There will be plenty of MPS who never believed they’d win and about whom very little is known, and fewer seasoned operators to appoint to positions of authority.

The next Labour government will also contend with the same intractabl­e problems in British politics – the same lack of a parliament­ary coalition to make it easier to build homes and infrastruc­ture. The same fickle public that covets the proceeds of economic growth but rejects the harsh trade-offs needed to achieve it; and the same long-term issues politician­s simply prefer to ignore, such as pension liabilitie­s. The Tories may look ungovernab­le, but in many ways so is the country.

But back to distant history; just as Boris Johnson’s victory was prematurel­y compared to Thatcher’s, so Starmer’s assumed triumph is being touted as a repeat of Blair in 1997. Perhaps we need to go back further to find an equivalent parallel. The inter-war period saw the death of the Liberal party, vast majorities won and lost in a matter of years, and the business of government constantly thwarted by economic chaos and social change that all parties struggled to control.

Such is the task ahead of any government now. As the economy continues to provide insurmount­able problems, an age of party extinction may be upon us again.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom