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Opinion

Labour must improve its offer to the people – or hard right populists will seize the agenda

18 Feb 2024 6 minute read
Nigel Farage. Credit: Steve Finn/WENN.

Martin Shipton

This week’s two by-elections may have confirmed that Labour will win this year’s general election, but I’ve never been so apprehensive about what may follow the victory.

Most people are heartily sick of the Conservatives and there’s a tangible sense that the curtain is falling with increasing rapidity on their pantomime of a government.

But there’s no excitement about the prospect of Labour under Starmer taking charge, as everyone at least half awake knows will happen.

The fact is that he and his Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves are spending their time reassuring the business world that they won’t make fundamental changes from the neo-liberal status quo – pre- and post-Truss,of course. Every time they ditch an ambitious policy, saying it is unaffordable, they diminish the hope that things can only get better.

Tony Blair

It’s unlikely that the song which provided the score for Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 will get much airtime this year. From a musical point of view I wasn’t a fan of it back then but I’m happy to concede that for many people it captured the sense of optimism that pervaded Britain at the time.

What would be the best anthem for the coming election? A funeral dirge, maybe. The point I’ve been leading up to is that Election 24 could be the last chance we have to avoid a descent into populism of a really nasty kind.

As someone pointed out the other day, Starmer is possibly the first British politician to face street shouts for him to be “out” before he’s even got in. He’s already alienated a lot of sensible people on the left of his own party by approving none-too-subtle manoeuvres that ensure they won’t be selected as Parliamentary candidates.

Far more importantly, because it directly affects ordinary people rather than aspiring politicians, he’s progressively getting rid of pledges that could rejuvenate the economy. Already, before the general election has been fought and won, members of the Shadow Cabinet like Wes Streeting are going on TV to lecture live audiences and viewers about why they shouldn’t expect things to get better, because the country can’t afford it.

Starmer and Reeves talk about the need for growth while at the same time making it clear that their determination to continue austerity – for that’s what their approach to the economy amounts to – makes it less likely that growth will occur. When people have less discretionary spend available to them because of rising mortgages and energy bills, as well as stagnant wages, there’s a negative trickle effect that sends the economy into a downward spiral. Hence the problems in the hospitality industry, for example, that lead to significant job losses.

Absurdly, the incoming Labour government is committed not to return to the European single market – a step that would be of immediate benefit to many businesses and lead to new inward investment opportunities that Britain is missing out on because we can’t provide access to EU consumers. The excuse for not doing it is because we might upset a dwindling band of people jealous of the “Brexit freedoms” that they can’t explain.

Unpopular

My apprehension stems from the likelihood that Starmer’s government will rapidly become unpopular because of its failure to deliver tangible improvements. What comes next is the worry.

Our population has largely resisted the toxic allure of hard core racist and fascist parties. We’re fortunate that those who lead such groups have tended to be unprepossessing at best, and usually surrounded by snarling thugs whose appeal is to a tiny demographic essentially composed of themselves.

But as we know, there are others whose outlook and prospectus are objectionable to many of us, but who are able to deploy a roguish charm that superficially softens a harsh message – and makes it somehow respectable.

Into this category I would place Reform UK, the renamed Brexit Party, which of course claimed more votes than any other at the final European Parliament election in which we participated.

In the early hours of Friday morning candidates and officials of Reform were congratulating themselves and each other while celebrating the 13% and 10% of the vote they gained respectively at Wellingborough and Kingswood – more than the party had achieved at any other Westminster election.

Its leader for now is Richard Tice, an odious and smirking toad whose partner Isabel Oakeshott is equally obnoxious. But waiting in the wings is Nigel Farage, whose skills as a confidence trickster reached their apogee in the 2016 referendum campaign that culminated in the UK’s departure from the EU.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Reform already has a chunk of disillusioned Tory voters, and the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg have no compunction about cosying up to Tice and Farage. Their strategy seems to be to do as much damage to the Conservative Party as possible, in the hope that the British right can realign. There has already been speculation that Farage’s ambition is to lead the Tory party. His best chance of doing so would be to offer himself up as its saviour if it had gone down to a huge defeat at the hands of Labour. It’s highly plausible that such is the master plan.

A weak Starmer-led government, unable to engineer an improvement to the economy because of its adherence to austerity spending limits, and under pressure from a range of increasingly disenchanted groups, some of them militant, would be a sitting target for an insurgent New Tory party run by Farage that offered simplistic solutions and created a full panoply of scapegoats to victimise.

We live in a troubled society where many people are beyond disillusion and wholly alienated from the political process. This applies just as much in Wales as in the rest of Britain and especially among the poorest, of whom we have more than our fair share.

Starmer and his team should have a rethink about their general election offer. Currently it’s likely that they will come up with a minimalist manifesto and rely on the electorate’s weariness with the Tories to sweep them to victory.

When they’ve taken power, however, people will demand that their expectations – articulated or not – will be fulfilled.

If Labour’s vessel is empty, others which are far less palatable will emerge.


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Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 month ago

When the Tories lose the next election they will lurch further to the right – it’s inevitable. They’ll be desperate so Farage will be the obvious candidate to lead them. Labour will only have one 5 year term to turn things around if they don’t the Tories could well get back in, that is what they are hoping for. So Starmer has to be brave and bold or we’ll all be back to square one in ’29.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Duggan

I doubt that an incoming Labour government has more than six months to prove itself. Starmer and Co really do need to listen to what Gary Stevenson has to say, broadly that Labour has to heavily tax the super rich so that he can deliver for the very poorest who are increasingly slipping into deeper and deeper desitution, the middle-class who are rapidly shrinking in size. Stevenson’s prescription is very similar to Martin Shipton’s above, that a failure to quickly embrace policies that rapidly deliver substantial improvements in the lives of ordinary people will result in a massive lurch to… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
1 month ago

More immediate concern is what Sunak will do to re attract the far right drifting to reform (how do they elect their leader again? Oh yeah, they don’t).

On a lighter note, funny how Farage (and Mogg and many Tories) favourite ex president is now banned from running businesses in New York cos fraud and no bank loans to bail him out.

Only plan for the next election is destruction of the Tory party via the polls. If the aforementioned fraudster and sex pest in the US gets to power, the Cons will hand him the keys to the UK.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff

The trouble is the not comedy combo Starmer & Reeves are also hand Trump the keys, as they are more in favour of helping the plutocrats than they are of delivering for ordinary people. I’m not a Labour supporter (even though I voted for Corbyn in both 2017 and 2019) but every time that Starmer has reneged on something I have felt somewhat crestfallen, as in the short term only a Labour government committed to delivering what the majority need will preserve us from an onslaught by the far right manipulating the votes of the frustrated and gullible. Best case… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
1 month ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

Odds are that Labour will be less beholden to this but they are not in power yet and they have the black spot already, I assume some of it sticks from the usual press outlets. But I see the people writing him off, I guess all that press baron got your back stuff is working. I don’t know what they will do, I expect Tory lite but that is still way better than what we have but am I also under the spell they are a done deal for the big money think tanks. Cons know they are stuffed, plan… Read more »

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
1 month ago

Seeing both Labour and Conservatives have failed Wales for decades. And because confidence is at a low ebb, which could leave the door open to extremists from the far-right, not only means a threat to minorities here but also Welsh & British democracy itself. There can be no better example of 1930s Germany where Hitler rose to prominence with the Nazi party, who blamed minorities for all their economic woes leading unspeakable consequences. It can & will happen again. History tends to repeat itself. Just look east, the Middle East, where tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians have been slaughtered… Read more »

Fi yn unig
Fi yn unig
1 month ago

We can only hope that Starmer is treading a fine line to get the win then sets about a radical agenda of getting the peoples’ money back from the spivs who have stolen it, and continue to steal it, from our accounts. I don’t need to mention names but guided by the Tories’ making up the rules as they go along, Starmer could easily instigate investigations into corrupt bodies and seize their funds pending return to the public purse and our pockets so that we can start living again.

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
1 month ago
Reply to  Fi yn unig

I have zero confidence in starmer meeting the hope many of us have, as a result of his actions before and after he became labour leader! He isn’t attracting voters, just look at the by-elections in Wellingborough and Kingswood. The so-called swings to labour or the change in vote share are both unreliable as predictors of the forthcoming general election due to the very low turnout in both by-elections. It’s even clearer when talking a look at the votes cast for labour on 15/02/2024 and 12/12/2019 for the two constituencies: Wellingborough in 2019 labour gained 13,737 votes and last week… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
1 month ago

All of this is symptomatic of the dysfunctional, degenerate UK State. It is an artiface, a construct to perpetuate the ongoing economic (and to that end, the political) hegemony of Britain’s capitalist class. The Faragists represent an insurgent faction of that class. We are all, the rest of us, fodder in their battle to shape the established order to their liking. Like all fascists, they are raising false flag after false flag, creating and mining grievance politics at every opportunity. Into this mix comes Starmer’s Labour. Their USP is to govern like competent conservatives. They offer no reforms whatsoever. IMHO… Read more »

Doctor Trousers
Doctor Trousers
1 month ago

what labour need to be forced to do to keep the far right out of government is to commit to electoral reform as a matter of extreme urgency. are we supposed to just accept that the only way to keep a farage led, extremist mutation of the tory party out of government is to put our trust in labour managing to remain in power? or that they’ll even last a full term to start with, for that matter? b****cks to that, frankly. If the nutters get in, it’ll be because their knackered, undemocratic, unfit for purpose first-past-the-post system can allow… Read more »

Maesglas
Maesglas
1 month ago

Under his leadership, Starmer offers absolutely nothing, and Labour will win for one reason: they are not the Tories. But that will change when in power. The poorly paid public sector workers are not suddenly going to withdraw their pay claims, nor are the many other problems going to go away. Starmer’s minor tinkering will soon get found out and fail.

Rob
Rob
1 month ago

The danger with populism is that it lacks any sense of rationality. The right wing Tories have a long term strategy which could easily work in their favour. They know full well that they are going to lose the election, so they will let Sunak take the blame for it, under the pretense “we would have won if we had stuck with Boris, or Liz Truss”, giving them the excuse to lurch further to the right. They also know that the economy is not going to get any better until we reaffirm closer ties to the EU. But that won’t… Read more »

TomTom82
TomTom82
1 month ago

I understand why Nigel Farage is not to everyone’s liking, but to accuse him of being far right is a kick in the teeth to the real victims of fascism. Farage is right wing, he’s not endorsing murdering people based on their ethnicity. Nation Cymru and other media outlets cheapen what it means to be extreme right when you use the term so often and with no meaning or reason.

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