We are being led by a charlatan and a chameleon. Boris Johnson’s populism has the propensity to adopt ever changing colours to suit the political climate. One week, ‘high wages, high skills’; the next, insisting nurses will only get a 3% pay rise, despite predictions of 5% inflation by the year end. Then saying he will not reach for the lever marked ‘immigration’, only to extend visas for European haulage drivers to six months with unlimited deliveries in the face of a 100,000 driver shortage. Applauding Chancellor Sunak’s National Insurance hike while taking away £20 in Universal Credit uplift from millions of poorer families. Millions for a royal yacht, billions for Trident replacement while billions are cut from overseas aid and public services struggle with underfunding.
Then we have Lord Frost’s threats to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol (effectively scrambling the Good Friday peace agreement) negotiated by Tory leaders and praised as a masterful deal. Levelling up, but not for our overstretched social care workers, as Maeve Cohen and Georgia Sangster write about our broken system. Levelling up but not for local councils having endured 50% cuts in their budgets over the past 11 years of Tory austerity. Duncan Bowie explains the doublespeak behind Tory plans.
Just like ‘Get Brexit Done’, we are now told Covid-19 is as good as done so we can dispense with mask-wearing and social distancing while infections hit 50,000 a day. Forget the developing world where, as Nick Dearden highlights, over 100 countries have barely vaccinated 2% of their populations while being denied financial help or vaccine patent waivers to produce their own. The UK has one of the world’s highest death rates from Covid with huge effects for NHS waiting lists. The joint select committee report has exposed countless shortcomings in the government’s handling of the pandemic, but lessons will not be learned as Johnson pushes the public inquiry back into 2022.
So this is a prime minister who speaks with a forked tongue about ‘sunlit uplands’ while the cost of living crisis hits millions of families. Dennis Leech looks at the cost of Tory economic policies while skewering Labour’s stubborn commitment to ‘fiscal discipline’. In the midst of this fallout from Covid and Brexit the opinion polls remain firmly in the Tories’ favour.
Why is this? A lot is to do with Keir Starmer’s lacklustre leadership. Labour spent much of its recent conference shooting itself in the foot. As Peter Kenyon explains, first we had Starmer’s foolhardy bid to turn the clock back on Labour’s now well established method of leader election by reintroducing the old electoral college. This failed, but showed the party preoccupied with internal wrangles. Then the shabby attempt to thwart conference supporting a £15 living wage leading to shadow employment minister Andy McDonald’s resignation. Further, at a time when energy prices for millions are going through the roof, with multiple company failures, the leader distanced himself from public ownership of energy, one of his ten election pledges. Currently Labour is spending more on legal fees against its own members than on campaigning. Membership has haemorrhaged by over 100,000.
So while there were many good policies on housing, education, mental health, employment (including rejecting fire-and-rehire) agreed at conference, the public image of a unified party was sadly lacking. Chartist has put its weight behind a push for the party to commit to electoral reform. As part of Labour for a New Democracy we produced a special democracy supplement. Mary Southcott reports that almost 80% of CLPs supported the composite motion, but the leadership was silent on democracy. Two unions, the GMB and Unite, were able to block progress, but Unite’s Policy Conference has just rejected first-past-the-post and calls for consultation. Labour would have to win over 125 seats at the next election to secure a majority. A commitment to a more proportionate voting system would attract millions of voters to Labour.
Yet this government’s failure and doublespeak is providing many opportunities for Labour to unfold a winning narrative. The supply chain crisis arises from government dogma on immigration and free movement, as Don Flynn explains in a detailed analysis of why, in a globalised world, immigration is here to stay and brings many benefits, not least to understaffed health and social care services.
Understandably Starmer wants to demonstrate he is different from Jeremy Corbyn. But the ten pledges he fought his leadership election on provide a firm basis to build a clear opposition to Johnson’s government. Labour’s electoral strategy is to win back lost ‘red wall’ seats, keeping a foothold in Scotland while retaining and extending the vote in the cosmopolitan centres and southern England. Bryn Jones examines three writers who explore this pivotal question, but finds them looking back to tired ‘New Labour’ formulas.
The climate emergency should provide Labour with the opportunity to sound the alarm at Tory failure and roll out its Green New Deal. With COP26 taking place in Glasgow, it is clear the government will not be taking the necessary action to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2035, let alone 2030. The Pandora papers reveal it is in hock to big capital and tax evaders. As Nigel Doggett explains, a bucket of greenwash is the most likely outcome, with plans to extend coal mining in Cumbria on pause, ditto for oil exploration in the North Sea, completely inadequate support for home insulation, electric vehicle infrastructure and investment in renewables. Abel Harvie-Clark, in the spirit of Greta Thunberg, reminds us that the student climate strike movement underlines the lack of effective government action. Labour should position itself at the head of the movement for a green social transition as a critical part of a vision for a new Britain for the many.