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  • Vijay Goswami

For Labour, moderation must be the watchword

Has any phrase been more tiresomely overused these last months than ‘A week is a long time in politics’? Political commentators use it as a slightly more sophisticated way of saying ‘Ooh, aren’t a lot of things happening lately’ and we all nod our heads wisely at the trite old truism.

Trite it may be, but it’s a truism that certain Labour supporters may do well to take to heart. Supercharged by giant poll leads and apocalyptic prophecies of the annihilation of the Tory Party, you can hear the cries already: “re-join the European Union!” says the Guardian, “be more revolutionary!” cries Novara Media and the Socialist Campaign group of MPs, “stand on the picket lines!” demand the unions and so on and so forth. To all these pleas, I counsel moderation.

Why? Several reasons.

Firstly, while only the most reckless of commentators would predict a Tory victory in the next general election, it is entirely possible that the present moment is the nadir of Tory fortunes. If newly minted PM Sunak can maintain calm in the markets and pull off some small wins to help the average person (and don’t forget he is the architect of furlough and eat-out-to-help-out, he has form) then what should be a 1997 style Labour landslide may well be frittered away into a much smaller majority. If a week is a long time in politics, two years is a lifetime.

Labour’s mega-win in 1997 led to a thirteen-year reign. Thatcher’s in 1983 gave the Tories fourteen more. To make changes to our society that last, it is necessary to entrench them and that requires consecutive terms in office with a big majority to push real change through the House of Commons and Lords.

But why is this inconsistent with a more aggressive (even revolutionary) approach and manifesto?

Simply put, while circumstances have changed, the electorate hasn’t, much. As 2019 proved, there is no real appetite amongst the wider electorate for revolutionary change. People want the system to work better and be a bit fairer, not mass nationalisations (rail I believe being the sole exception). They are still not keen on the EU. They are more favourable to unions now as everyone is suffering the cost-of-living crisis but as and when strikes bite, the mood may change.

It's illustrative about what’s desired at this point that Sunak’s appointment was followed by an immediate rally in the markets. James O’Brian described this as ‘relief that an adult is at last in charge.’ Labour should aim to be the more credible adult in the next election and part of that is demonstrating moderation and continuity.

However, there are hurdles to overcome; Labour has not been doing well at keeping its friends over the last few decades. They lost the Scots through neglect, the Red Wall similarly, many Jewish people over antisemitism and many Hindus over Kashmir (compare and contrast Tories making Sunak PM on Diwali day!). There are murmurings even in strongholds like the inner London boroughs, where the local government neglect matches anything in Scotland – Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets may well be a harbinger of things to come.

Even worse than this, few of the above (or indeed many at all) feel enthused to vote for Labour. Moya Lothian-McLean memorably compared Keir Starmer to a wet wipe. Instead, the electorate will be voting against the Conservatives. This is attested to by round after round of polling where Labour has a much higher voting intention percentage than Starmer’s own popularity rating, which amazingly is not miles ahead of Sunak even now.

Public scepticism of Labour policy is historically deep-rooted and hard to shift. In 1997, the actions of Labour in 1979 were still a major talking point. Blair had to substantially shift Labour policies to the Right, ally with Rupert Murdoch and along with Kinnock, purge Labour of the Hard Left and even then, it took seventeen years and an economic crisis that rivals today’s to get the Tories out.

Let’s compare 2022. We are still reeling from the financial crash (which occurred on Labour’s watch) and resulting austerity. We are only three years from the catastrophic Corbyn defeat. Starmer is no match for peak Blair. I do not see much likelihood, therefore, that Labour can produce a compelling offer on their own merits in the near future.

It follows then that Labour cannot afford to alienate the electorate with policies that do not chime. They tried that in 1983 and 2019 and were soundly thrashed for their troubles.

As it stands, Labour do not have a raison d’etre beyond saying they could manage the status quo better than the Tories (except the left of the party, whose ideas have been proved to be electoral poison). This is basically small c-conservatism and the British electorate do tend to vote for that. ‘Competent, moderate inoffensiveness’ will never appear on a t-shirt or on a banner, but it may well deliver Labour to power for a generation.

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