A jingle of power rising around Britain's Labour Party

It’s been a while since Tony Blair led Labour to that landslide election win in 1997. The party lost power in 2010 and has since remained on the opposition benches. Now after 12 years of bumpy Tory rule marked by rows and referendums, the mood music around Labour is growing upbeat

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Fri 16 Dec 2022, 10:59 PM

It is rightly called the most entertaining parliamentary session anywhere in the world: the Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ) in the House of Commons. At 12 noon on Wednesdays, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition spar on various issues, live on television, in what is increasingly seen as a ‘Punch and Judy’ show, a gladiatorial contest complete with wit, repartees, noise and some schoolboy rowdyism from the backbenches. This version of in-your-face accountability was something I had rarely seen in years of covering politics in south Asia, until I landed on a cold, grim and grey day in Cambridge in January 1995, and soon witnessed the cut and thrust of jousting between the then Prime Minister John Major and the leader of the opposition, Tony Blair.

If all that matters in this age is slick political communication, branding and micromanaging headlines, it was no contest: Blair would land blow after blow across the dispatch box on the hapless Major. Blair famously went on to win the 1997 election, and later admitted that as prime minister he was the most edgy during PMQ sessions. The PMQ is a British institution reviled and relished in equal measure, but after witnessing that first Major-Blair bout and many others in later years, it is clear to me that PMQ sessions are a fair index of which way the political wind is blowing.

Cut to 2022 and the current PMQ sessions suggest that the political pendulum is clearly moving towards Labour; the tilt is also complemented by recent opinion polls that suggest the Conservative party faces an electoral debacle. Still cautious not to put a foot wrong and forensic in questions, Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, has grown in stature since taking over as the Labour leader from Jeremy Corbyn in 2020, his body language increasingly confident during PMQs, often putting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the back-foot, despite the latter’s valiant attempts to counter.

The fact remains that Sunak is hobbled with the baggage of 12 years of Tory rule, trying to make the best of his remaining time in Number 10, while battling anti-incumbency before the next election (expected in 2024): there are many who see Sunak as simply doing the day-to-day ‘holding job’ before presiding over the party’s wipeout in the election. Recent political convulsions — Sunak is the third Tory prime minister in 2022 — and rows such as parties in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns haven’t exactly raised the Conservative party’s ratings. The 12 years of Tory rule included two referendums, whose outcomes continue to blight the political landscape: on Scotland’s independence in 2014 and on the UK’s membership of the European Union in 2016.

Besides the optics of PMQ sessions under the harsh glare of live television, another indicator is Labour winning key policy arguments in recent weeks and months, forcing the government to adopt alternatives the party suggests, reviving the notion that it is the government in waiting.

After initially resisting, the Conservative government recently agreed to Labour’s suggestion to impose a windfall tax of energy companies making large profits. Then, it agreed to Labour’s plan to put a price cap on energy and raise state benefits in line with inflation. Last week, the Tories made a policy announcement that was a Labour proposal in July 2021, promising to ‘make the right to request flexible working a day-one right’ in work-related legislation. Sunak has gone a step further and hired Labour figures Patricia Hewitt and Michael Barber as advisers. Some see Sunak governing more like the way Gordon Brown did as prime minister, before Labour lost power in 2010, suggesting some blurring of lines between the two parties. “In some ways, you could argue, the transition to a Labour government has already begun”, writes Guardian columnist Andy Beckett.

Adding more jingles to the pro-Labour music is the number of Conservative MPs announcing they will not contest in 2024. The MPs were asked to inform party headquarters by December 5 if they would stand again. Many MPs are expected to decide later, expecting roles in Sunak’s reshuffles before the election, but those who have decided not to contest include senior figures such as Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock, Crispin Blunt, Chris Skidmore and Charles Walker. There are already reports of Tory MPs sounding out headhunters to land jobs while the party is still in government, recalling that after the 1997 election loss, former Tory MPs found it tough to find jobs. Elsewhere, Labour advisers have reported “an avalanche of attention” from recruitment consultants and lobbying firms that are keen to hire those with an inside view of the party.

Corbyn and his radical policies were popular, but he and the party remained unelectable. After taking over from Corbyn, Starmer once argued that there is no point to Labour unless it could win power, insisting that the party must move from being a ‘party of protest’ to one that wins an election to help working people. Under Corbyn’s five-year term, the party saw a spike in membership and vote share, but failed to win the 2017 and 2019 elections, despite putting in place a radical plan that included re-nationalising public utilities and railways, reversal of austerity cuts of Tory governments and a less interventionist military policy. Now riding a surge in opinion polls, Starmer has begun work on major policy promises to be highlighted in the party’s manifesto for the 2024 election.

Starmer told Labour’s annual conference in September: “I knew in April 2020, when I became leader of this party, we had a big task before us. We had to change our party and prepare for power all in one go. Not change for change’s sake. Change with a purpose. To make our Labour Party fit to serve our country. That’s why we had to rip anti-semitism out by its roots. Why we had to show our support for NATO is non-negotiable. Show we want business to prosper. Shed unworkable policies. Country first, party second. My government will be different. We will run towards the challenges of tomorrow. We will get us out of this endless cycle of crisis. And we will do it with a fresh start, a new set of priorities and a new way of governing. But it won’t be easy. After twelve long years our spirit is ground down…The Government has lost control of the British economy…The only way forward is to stop this — with a Labour Government”.

His first headline-grabbing promise is to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected chamber. It is part of a review of the constitution by a commission headed by Gordon Brown, who was tasked by Starmer in 2020 to produce plans to “settle the future of the union” and devolve “power, wealth and opportunity” throughout the country. The commission published its report earlier this month, setting out 40 recommendations for constitutional change, including intergovernmental cooperation and greater power to the regions and devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Starmer said the report proposed “the biggest ever transfer of political power out of Westminster and into the towns, cities, and nations of the UK”.

Coming across as a grown-up during PMQ sessions against Sunak, Starmer, a former human rights lawyer, has also been outlining how a Labour government under his watch will look: “My government will be different…So imagine we are looking back at the first term of the next Labour Government. How is Britain different? I’ll tell you. We’ve defeated the cost-of-living crisis and the clouds of anxiety have lifted. Services are there when you need them. Our economy is stable again. Business has the certainty to invest. The NHS is back in good health.

And people are starting to raise their sights. People feel they can get on. There’s more opportunity, more affordable housing, fairer taxes, higher wages, jobs — more secure. Families can aspire again. Look forward with hope, again…And because we are fairer, because we are greener, we’re also more dynamic. Our entrepreneurial spirit — unleashed…And working people are respected as the people who create the wealth that drives Britain forward”.

Starmer’s bid to make Labour electable again has involved some retreats as well as purge of what are called ‘losing left’ elements that held sway under Corbyn. Anything deemed ‘radical’ also finds less favour under Starmer, who faces accusations from allies of introducing a culture of aversion to meaningful change in the party.

As columnist Nesrine Malik writes, “Some of Labour’s retreat, both in outward ambition and internal standards, is the result of trauma inflicted by its defeat in 2019, by a decade’s rule by a Conservative party that seemed impossible to dislodge, and by a rightwing press that has so ruthlessly savaged successive Labour leaders. In order to win, the party has reverted to its safe space: 1997. The result is a limited and anachronistic policy offering, further constrained by the fact that the solutions to the crisis Labour will inherit involve some form of redistribution of power and wealth, nationalisation, stronger regulation, higher taxation and opening up of borders. All things that Labour recoils from in its fear of being painted as ideological…The tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Labour can win on its own terms if it chooses to believe that it is fit for power because it is Labour”.

Critics also point out to the lack of real excitement under the cautious Starmer, the kind of fervour seen during Corbyn’s tenure, including at the iconic Glastonbury Festival in 2017, when he received a rockstar reception. There are reports of party’s membership numbers falling: when he took over in 2020, Labour had 553,000 members, which has fallen to 373,000, which also means a multi-million-pound shortfall in annual membership fees.

Starmer is accused of presiding over lack of policy radicalism, fostering ‘turgid neutrality’ so that the party appeals to all sections and inclinations, sitting on the fence, most evident on the issue of Brexit. He insists that under his government, he would not seek to re-join the EU, but make Brexit work: “The policy of my Labour Government will always be to make Brexit work. It’s no secret I voted Remain…But what I heard, across the country, was people who thought we’d got our priorities wrong…I didn’t hear that Brexit was about slashing workers’ rights. I didn’t hear people wanting to lower standards on food, animal welfare or the environment. I didn’t hear them wanting to end redistribution. So I want to speak directly to the people who left Labour on this issue. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you’ve been let down”.

Is it enough to be complacent, rely on anti-incumbency and growing unease with Tory rows and policies to win the next election? Starmer faces increasing calls to step up and offer a clearer vision for change, inject some dynamism and excitement in its offering to the public.

Labour grandee Peter Mandelson, a veteran of election campaigns since the late 1980s, does not want Starmer to “sit back”, but be “restless for change”. He wrote in a foreword to a report by a group of media professionals called Labour in Communications: “Either we offer it (change), convincingly, or the British public will turn to others who say that they do. The Tories will try to mount a post-truth campaign – one that pretends that the previous decade of austerity, division and chaos has not happened. This has been a period when successive Conservative prime ministers have offered no sense of mission or plan for Britain. This is our cue. The British people have their eyes on the future and so must we.”

So, Starmer has his task cut out, taking on Sunak in PMQ sessions and the Tories at the local and national elections, as well as satisfying allies-turned-critics inside and outside the party.

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