Something is Broken in British Politics

Image Courtesy of Ben Kirchner

The United Kingdom is plagued by a dearth of political imagination. Since the late 1980s, Britain has been propelled by governments less interested in making substantial change than regurgitating a narrow set of policies and theories to diminishing returns. Thatcherism, characterized by its focus on deregulation, de-unionization, and privatization, segued into fourteen years of Blairism and “New Labour” — a more socially liberal retrofit of the same privatization project. Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Prime Minister, purportedly remarked that Tony Blair and New Labour, with their tacit acceptance of the central reform measures of Thatcherism — tax cuts, centralizing power away from municipal authorities, and restrained government spending — was her “greatest accomplishment.” The point is clear: far from offering an alternative vision of Britain, New Labour interpolated and then metastasized Thatcherism’s grandest ambitions.

Labour’s hold over the government collapsed in 2010 when voters brought the Conservatives, now under the leadership of David Cameron, back to Downing Street. The UK has had fourteen years of uninterrupted conservative rule since then. This fall, voters seem poised to hand an electoral victory to Labour once again, reshuffling the deck of ideas to send Britain on a new trajectory. Conservatives, now under Rishi Sunak, the country’s fifth prime minister in thirteen years, trail Keir Starmer’s Labour Party by a large margin in every region of the country. A prediction model by The Economist estimates that if the election were held today, Labour could win over 400 seats, the largest majority in recent history. Yet, somewhere on the path from Thatcher to Starmer, something broke in British politics. No one, from the Conservatives to the ascendant Labour party, seems particularly enthusiastic about governing. Despite polls showing that if the election were held today, Labour could win over 400 seats in parliament, a supermajority, Starmer seems more interested in marginalizing the Labour left than setting out a transformative plan for his premiership. Under Starmer, Labour has nothing to say about Brexit or Britain’s shifting position in the world. The party equivocates its own spending and tax plans and recently scaled back a plan to invest key £28 billion in green energy for seemingly no reason. In a country where 14 million people — a fifth of the population — live in poverty, with consequently deteriorating health, Labour has signaled that it will essentially copy Conservative tax and public spending policies if elected.

The ruling Conservatives are similarly short on ideas. Blown-out and bitterly divided after a decade in government, the five Prime Ministers of this period have each tried to resurrect a different facet of Thatcherism. Cameron made “austerity,” a strategy to reduce government budget deficits by reducing government spending, the centerpiece of his government’s response to the 2008 recession. Under Cameron, investment per head in public infrastructure fell across the board. Growth remained low, while unemployment rose. Cameron’s Conservatives attempted to invoke a Thatcherite line of argument that things “would have to get worse before they got better,” but England has hardly seen an economic rebound. Today, 600,000 more children are living in poverty in the UK compared to 2012. British people are also comparatively poorer today than they were in 2010 and affordable housing remains elusive for many. 

After Cameron, the Conservatives struggled to find a new focus. Brexit torpedoed Theresa May’s premiership and nearly brought down Boris Johnson. The COVID pandemic laid bare the extent to which austerity measures had weakened the National Health Service. In response, Johnson advocated for fiscal stimulus without boosting government spending. His premiership remained trapped in the privatized, small-state, vision of Britain that Thatcher laid out 40 years ago. Liz Truss, Johnson’s successor, similarly struggled to respond to a post-pandemic recession without increasing government spending. Her administration’s pratfalls, including a disastrous mini-budget proposal that briefly cut the country’s credit rating by two notches, eroded any remaining public confidence in the Conservatives’ ability to govern. Rishi Sunak, the current Prime Minister, can barely govern his coalition of bitterly divided colleagues. Last week, a total smoking ban, Sunak’s key policy up to this point, received a political drubbing after nearly half of Sunak’s Members of Parliament failed to vote in favor of the plan.

In place of transformative economic and domestic policy, Conservatives in the UK are leaning into an expansion of state-sponsored racism and anti-immigrant bigotry. A major policy from the Sunak premiership is a bill that would fly asylum seekers coming to the UK to Rwanda. Conservative MPs regularly warn of a coming migrant crisis and the need to militarize borders. Reform UK, a right-wing political party led by firebrand Nigel Farage, is the main beneficiary of this new anti-immigrant rhetoric. Politico puts Reform UK at 13% in recent polls, a ten percentage point increase from this time last year. While Reform will likely win zero seats in the next election, its surging popularity is terrifying given the upward trajectory of other right-wing groups across Europe.

It’s easy to blame Starmer for Labour’s uninspired electoral platform. Five years ago, Labour advocated for significant increases in public spending, a robust public sector, and transformative changes in the tax code, an ostensive break from Blair. Soon after, a series of scandals and revolts by the party’s right-wing brought down the party’s leader at that time, Jeremy Corbyn, clearing the path for Starmer. Yet, a scrupulous examination of Corbyn’s project shows that a significant portion of his policy stances align closely with the traditional Labour doctrine. Far from proposing a “radical” new direction for the UK, Corbyn essentially campaigned on a standard Labour spending package, albeit with the scale of public investment several multiples higher. 

Examining a manifesto from the Corbyn era elicits feelings of reassurance and frustration – there’s a distinct desire to enact change, yet a notable inability to conceive truly “radical” ideas. Corbyn’s proposal to put an extra 26 billion pounds into the NHS is admirable, but nowhere near as radical as setting up the NHS in the first place. His proposals to raise the minimum wage promised to deliver change, but the truly radical breakthrough was establishing a minimum wage to begin with. Corbyn’s decline is not so much a tragedy of radical policies being restrained, but rather the story of a mainstream party reverting to its more moderate wing.

Viewed as the latest installment in a series of underwhelming leaders, there’s nothing particularly fresh or provocative about Starmer’s dullness. An Oxford-educated former prosecutor, Starmer has essentially positioned himself to be the next David Cameron. Like all previous administrations, Labour or Conservative, Starmer operates as if all questions about government financing, public investment, and regulation were given definitive answers by Thatcher in the ’80s. He is not the politician the UK needs, but neither is any other currently elected party leader. 

Heading into this fall’s election, UK voters find themselves with little in the way of contrasting choices. Labour will undoubtedly govern in the interest of socially liberal causes – expanding transgender rights, targeting discrimination, and advancing marginally better climate policy – but nothing they do will address the systemic ways that Britain’s institutions remain broken for so many people. 

Yet, a Labour government is still better than a government without the left. Despite the current leadership’s lingering attachment to the past, there’s still potential to steer Labour towards the future. It will take a coalition of grassroots forces — healthcare workers, union laborers — to pressure Starmer into passing substantial policy. It will be a near sisyphean struggle, but not an impossible task. Labour is the party that once championed transformative policies, and, as Tom Nairn argues in his seminal essay “The Nature of the Labour Party,”  it has the potential to do so again: “whatever Labour’s limits, however contradictory, or even regressive, its function might finally become — its advent means hope, not merely the repetition of an old illusion.”

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