Britain will dislike the Labour government in no time

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Spare me, please, another long read about the bitter atmosphere in the UK after 14 years of Conservative rule. Of course it is bitter. Which outgoing government of comparable lifespan was kissed farewell and thanked for all its hard work? The Tories were jeered from office in 1997. Their Labour successors won a still lower share of the vote in 2010. (Oh yes, they did.) Long-serving regimes are hated. Want to be liked in politics? Lose more. Govern less.

Voters have had 14 years to observe the faults of one political party in subatomic detail. And 14 years of relief from Labour’s. That is going to change soon. So what will the public dislike about the probable next government?

In a word, statism. Labour exists to spend money. No disgrace there: it is the quickest route to some of its social objectives. But with taxes and public debt so much higher than when Labour last governed, the pain this time will be sharper. Here is a prediction. After some initial fiscal restraint, Labour, in frustration, will borrow more — on past evidence, much more — than markets currently expect. If taxes rise, too, the public’s reaction won’t be the kind of grudging assent granted to Gordon Brown’s penny on national insurance in 2002.

Worse, public services won’t improve much because Labour won’t reform them. When Tony Blair challenged producer interests in healthcare and education, unions revolted. Sir Keir Starmer shows little intention of even testing their patience. If the Tories are a lobby group for old people, Labour is one for the public-sector middle class. If the most important social schism under this government is between the wage-earning young and asset-rich pensioners, expect the next one to be between private and public sector workers.

Labour’s confidence in officialdom is touching. There is to be a British Infrastructure Council, a National Wealth Fund, an Industrial Strategy Council and something called Great British Energy. Those are just the bodies mentioned in the shadow chancellor’s Mais lecture last month, which also implied that Britain’s economic success either side of the millennium owed something to the Treasury’s Enterprise and Growth Unit. (In a speech of amazing gracelessness, Nigel Lawson, the reforming chancellor of the 1980s, was credited with almost nothing. I suppose we can’t all leave behind something as profound as an acronymed quango.)

This bureaucratic worldview never dies in the party. Even New Labour, at its most liberal and business-smitten, had genuine intellectual trouble talking about the private sector without invoking the role of government as an impetus or a “partner”.

So, corporatist institutions are going to proliferate. The texture of public life will feel 1970s-ish. Voters will remember that “fat cats” purr away in the state sector, too. Trade union special pleading will be what bankers’ bonuses were under the Tories. The almost mystical faith in “investment” will come under the scrutiny that it somehow escapes now. (What have been the economic returns on New Labour’s decade of investment?)

The clamour to move left will build soon after Labour wins. For all Starmer’s underrated toughness, this is still a party that twice offered Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. It has a deputy leader who is too accident-prone to be tenable in government, and still better than whichever tub thumper might replace her in an internal election. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has brought out Labour elements with views, not to say manners, at some variance with the British median. Such a party can’t but nudge Starmer left over time. Voters, busy with their well-warranted dislike of the Tories, haven’t had to reckon with these things for 14 years.

How they react comes down, in the end, to this. Are we living through a historic turn in the national consensus towards bigger government? Is this what 1979 was for the market? If so, Labour should be able to increase taxes (not just borrow, which is a cop-out) and survive. If not — if progressives, with their Marxian weakness for narrative, have read a big dialectical shift into the messiness of real life — expect a very unpopular Labour government, very soon. Joe Biden can advise. So can François Hollande. There is something of the former French president about Labour now: far from extreme, but too statist to last in a country that needs a different sort of reform.

Among the consolations of middle age is seeing things from one’s prime years come around again. After the financial crash in 2008, Labour was confident that the hour of the state had arrived. It entertained talk of a post-liberal world. It elected leaders in that image. It hasn’t governed since.


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