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Opinion

The general election is a sideshow – far more interesting is what comes next

25 May 2024 7 minute read
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak issues a statement outside 10 Downing Street, London, after calling a General Election for July 4. Photo Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Martin Shipton

Everyone, including Rishi Sunak and the large number of Tory MPs who have chosen to stand down, knows that Labour is on course to win a big victory.

So the general election itself is a bit of a sideshow, with the interesting detail being which prominent MPs manage to cling on and which will lose their seats.

Far more interesting is what comes next and the degree to which politicians are prepared to be honest with the electorate.

Since the Conservatives are going to be out of office in a few weeks time and Labour will be running the UK, it seems sensible to concentrate on scrutinising the offer made by Labour.

The omens are not good. Very shortly after the election was announced, Labour released a video that included a number of bold claims. Headlined “What would Labour do differently”, the voiceover from Keir Starmer said: “Build one and a half million new homes across the country. Cheaper bills with GB Energy, a new public company using clean British power, not foreign oil and gas. Two million more appointments every year in an NHS clearing the backlog, seven days a week.

“More police in your town, clamping down on antisocial behaviour, halving violence against women and girls. For opportunities for your children, expert teachers in every classroom. Better mental health support in schools. That is the change we offer. That is Britain’s future. To get it back, vote Labour.”

Stability

Not long after came a video from Rachel Reeves, who after the election is very likely to be the UK’s first female Chancellor of the Exchequer. Her message was somewhat different: “Stability. That’s what’s on the ballot paper at this election. Five more years of chaos with the Conservatives or stability, with a changed Labour Party. Because at this election, stability is change.

“I worked at the Bank of England as an economist. I know what it takes to run a successful economy. And I know the importance of protecting family finances. After 14 years of the Conservatives, you are worse off. Taxes at a 70-year high. Mortgages up. And prices higher in the shops. It’s time for change.With me as Chancellor, you’ll get economic stability – stability to protect family finances. Stability to give businesses the confidence to invest. And stability so we can keep taxes, inflation and mortgages as low as possible.”

Another video featured Starmer talking about the tough choices he would face in government, and how scrapping student tuition fees was not affordable if instead, as he had decided, extra funding was given to the NHS.

Inconsistent

The narrative was inconsistent. In the first video Starmer asserted without evidence that Labour would build one and a half million new homes, without explaining that the bulk of new homes would be built by private developers who aren’t interested in building “affordable” homes, and do so grudgingly when forced to do so in order to get planning permission for their bigger “less affordable” projects.

Starmer’s claim to be able to get people’s fuel bills down by setting up a government-owned energy company may or may not be accurate. It will be interesting to see the workings-out and whether British energy sources will be able to build up the capacity to replace foreign oil and gas, and in what timeframe.

Being able to deliver two million more NHS appointments per year is surely dependent on what are bound to be delicate negotiations with clinicians and others. And while the promise to halve violence on women and girls is certainly ambitious, it seems like a figure plucked out of the air.

Reeves’ assertion that stability is change seems a contradiction in terms. Implementing change necessarily involves shaking up the status quo and embarking on a new direction. The concern is that in seeking “stability”, Labour has watered down or dumped many of the policies it had previously espoused. It’s very easy for “stability” to morph into “continuity Tory”. Starmer’s rejection of scrapping student tuition fees is an example of this.

Honest

For Jeff Jones, a former Labour leader of Bridgend council, politicians should be honest and tell us the truth: that Britain is in decline. He told me: “The other day the IMF [International Monetary Fund] published an analysis of Britain’s financial prospects and concluded that they are sluggish. There’s not much expectation of economic growth. Far from endorsing any tax cuts, the IMF suggested there should be tax increases and said that otherwise there would be the need to make spending cuts of £30bn. If we want to safeguard spending on health, education and defence and make cuts in other areas, that would entail closing down the equivalent of a whole Whitehall department.

“It’s absolutely clear that Britain is in trouble economically, but neither of the main parties want to discuss the one thing that would improve the economy very quickly. Brexit has created barriers between Britain and our nearest trading partners which is severely detrimental to our economy. Yet neither Labour nor the Tories want to talk about it.

“Five years ago Boris Johnson won the last election on the promise to ‘get Brexit done’. Now it’s not even mentioned. In 2026 there will be a review of how the trading relationship between the EU and the UK since Brexit is working and whether changes are needed in the future. The Labour Party should be setting out its view on that in detail during the election campaign, but I can’t see that happening.

“The reality is that party strategists who devise the narratives for election campaigns hold the majority of the public in contempt. They think, correctly, that the majority of people aren’t very interested in politics, if at all, and that therefore they can be told anything because they will soon forget it.”

Lack of empathy

Mr Jones said the lack of empathy with ordinary people had resulted in not only the Tories, but Labour too, ignoring representations about the two-child benefit cap. He said: “Anyone with any expertise in the field of tackling poverty will tell you that the most important thing that can be done immediately is to remove the two-child cap.

“It’s been estimated that as many as 490,000 children are living in poverty in the UK because of it. It’s disgraceful that Labour, which was founded as a party to support the working class, is following a Tory policy that has condemned so many to misery.

“The fact is that when politicians want to find money for things they want to do, they have no problem. But when it’s something that would make the lives of so many people better, the money can’t be found.

“We need a proper debate about the future, but I fear we’re not going to get it.”

The issues raised by Jeff Jones are very important. We’ll be able to measure the honesty of the parties by the extent to which they are prepared to engage with them.

I’m uneasy about comments that have been made by some Labour politicians which give credibility to the notion that a national economy can be equated with a household economy and that Britain has “maxed out its credit card”.

And I’m interested in the ideas of the economist Richard Murphy, who was a policy adviser to Jeremy Corbyn when he led Labour. Murphy points out that many billions of pounds were created for the purpose of “quantitative easing” to help Britain cope with the Covid crisis. It simply entails printing money. Murphy argues that doing the same now would stimulate the economy.

If Britain – and by extension Wales, of course – is in a state of decline, we need to broaden our thinking and use ingenuity to help us make things better for all our citizens.


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Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
8 days ago

No mention of one of the currently untapped sources of extra taxation, namely properly taxing the wealth of the super rich, the taxing of multinational corporations such as Amazon that pull a fast one through putting sales through Luxembourg thus reducing their tax liability even where the very existence of their warehouses is as a direct subsidy from taxpayers – the entire road access to the Amazon warehouse in Swansea was paid for by taxpayers. It has been known for some years that tightening up on tax evasion and avoidance would yield significant sums of badly needed income for vital… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
8 days ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

I quite agree Padi. The UK is a vehicle for the already wealthy to acquire yet more wealth. Has been for centuries. Starmer et al are all in hock to those interests. That greed is choking ordinary working people all over Britain. It is also destroying Cymru. The hallmark of this avaricious pursuit is the increasing monopolisation of our economy. That is what neoliberalism is all about. The Libertarian lunatic fringe in the Tory party thinks that doesn’t go far enough. Labour thinks that they can ride that bronco with a little token “redistributionism”. How progressive of them. Nothing short… Read more »

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
8 days ago

Suggestions on a postcard…’let’s give Ryan and Robbie a go’…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
8 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

What if Clark Kent steps out of the phone box and it is Sir Keir Starmer in a snazzy black and red number still with the trademark specs…increasingly likely, the stays are coming off now, the flags are out, swagger stick next and it will be a vice our heads are in between the laws of nature and the laws of the land, poverty and coercion, the BBC and truth…

Annibendod
Annibendod
8 days ago

Starmer’s New Conservative Labour Party will not achieve anything beyond a best case scenario topological treatment of Britain’s problems. At worst, they will make matters worse and distract us with updating the window dressing. For months on months, Starmer has made it clear that he will uphold the current economic model, constitutional model and the current political model. We should all be clear about what Wales needs. We need to escape the core-periphery UK economy with its 45 year Thatcherite pursuit of neoliberal dogma and get back to the European-style social market economy that has actually been proven to level… Read more »

Last edited 8 days ago by Annibendod
Steve A Duggan
Steve A Duggan
8 days ago

I suspect, as most people do, that Labour will win the next election. However, it won’t be because of their promises but because the Tories are now utterly detested. Many believe the new Labour government will just be a watered down Conservative one. People are angry and tired not just of the Tories but of all politicians. I believe the only way for Wales to escape this dismal set-up is through independence and the chance to start something new. Nothing will change if we stay tied to Westminster.

John Ellis
John Ellis
7 days ago

I’m inclined to agree with the underlying thrust of this opinion piece, because my hunch is that a Starmerite government – which we appear to be likely to get quite soon – won’t in reality be hugely different from what we’ve had from the Tories in the Sunak period. OK, I accept that we’ll see the end of the Rwanda farce, that we’ll see some significant even if tentative policy shifts, and that under Labour there’ll be a cautious retreat from the recent Conservative ‘rule Britannia’ burblings which affect to suggest that Britain’s global status is still what it was… Read more »

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