Jthere’s only one job in politics worse than being Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser, and that’s being the Leader of the Opposition. When things are going badly, everyone is critical. When they get better – well, it’s pretty much the same. It has been just two weeks since the prime minister narrowly survived a humiliating attempt to overthrow him. And as of this writing, the Tories are on course for one, if not two, by-election defeats as voters exact revenge for the general misery engulfing the party, but also for something much more. fundamental.
A narcotic 72% of voters think the government is mismanaging the economy, with 56% of them conservatives, according to regular YouGov monitoring. It’s figures of crows leaving the tower for a Tory government, but all this week it’s sort of been Labor MPs complaining about their leader and openly arguing for a post if he fell under a driven bus by Durham Police.
Well, no one said politics was right. But clearly Labor has more to think about to capitalize on what appears to be a watershed moment, where the old economic order is visibly shifting almost as it did at the start of the pandemic or the banking crash.
Britain is navigating in uncharted waters, with inflation soaring in the most unusual way in an economy on the brink of recession. It is far from clear whether the usual monetary response, designed to rein in an economy that is too hot, will work in an economy that is too cold. Big questions arise over wages and profits, and how companies, workers and taxpayers should share the pain of becoming (let’s face it) a poorer country, after the triple whammy of a pandemic, Brexit and a war. Now is the time to think differently, to favor perky oppositions over hungry governments. Instead of getting bogged down in arguments over whether an obscure ghost ministerial bag hauler should apologize for being on a picket line, Labor must now understand what voters are trying to tell them about economic competence. and run like hell with it.
Johnson’s answer to an impending summer of discontent is apparently that strikes are bad, unions worse, and the answer to ambitions public sector wage demands is “no”. He knows that whatever independent pay review bodies covering teaching, nursing, the armed forces and others are about to recommend will likely not be enough in the current climate. But he thinks big hikes are unaffordable if he wants to bribe voters with pre-election tax cuts, which is why choosing jam tomorrow (maybe) over jam today. He does not seem very concerned about the likely consequences, including not only strikes but also resignations, early retirements and public sector recruitment difficulties, as workers who have endured years of wage freezes surrender realize that they could earn more in a pleasant and relaxing office job. .
The one thing Johnson’s strategy has going for it is clarity. It’s obvious what he means, and who’s supposed to be impressed: people old enough to associate the ’70s with power cuts and overflowing garbage cans, who think it would be madness to raise salaries or benefits in line with 10% inflation, but madness not do it for pensions. (And yes, many of them are retirees.) But it’s confusing for anyone young enough to associate the 70s more with Abba and the summer of love, or for those who happily set up their laptops in the garden and conclude that rail strikes aren’t the hassle they were before working from home. Even less is it for those who need help today, not tax cuts maybe next year; or for anyone worried that a big economic shock is coming and the government apparently doesn’t know what to do. Johnson casts herself as Margaret Thatcher in the face of the unions to disguise a rather closer resemblance to a powerless Jim Callaghan.
The media star of the week, the Mick Lynch, RMT union leader, meanwhile, eats investigators for breakfast because his message is also exceptionally clear. He too has simple arguments, delivered with panache: his members want more money. This is not unreasonable, given that everything suddenly costs more. And urging wage moderation when you’re governor of the Bank of England on £600,000 a year is frankly a bit rich. Now ask yourself what Keir Starmer talking points would be. Something from a high-growth, high-wage economy?
Here are three suggestions. Public sector workers deserve better after all they have been through and could have had it now if the Tories had not horlicked the economy like this. (That may be as close as Starmer dares to talk Brexit.) Wage moderation should be for those who can afford it, so why is Downing Street pushing for uncap banker bonuses and ignoring CEO compensation? And finally, a government so broken it can’t even get your passport renewed in time can’t be trusted with an impending economic crisis. (Never underestimate the sheer irritation of Tory voters feeling that nothing seems to be working right anymore, from getting a GP appointment to navigating Gatwick.)
These three points could frame what Labor would probably say if they were in government, which is that not everyone can have a bumper pay rise now, but not everyone needs one. What matters is to distinguish between the workers who have been so underpaid for so long that they vote with their feet, and those who need help to weather an inflationary storm that should eventually pass. . The latter could be better helped by bonuses, benefits and one-time “cost of living” payments such as those Rishi Sunak has promised to cover fuel bills. All of this would be affordable if the government were not unnecessarily obsessed with tax cuts. But it doesn’t have to be those three points: there should be three that the leader actually believes in, enough to pull Labor out of its defensive crouch.
Johnson is only trying to revive the battles of the 70s because it’s easier than defending the present. That alone should give confidence to the opposition. Meanwhile, voters are telling Labor they now have the floor: ministers just need to stop looking so scared and speak their minds.
Tony Blair is said to have groomed his polling head in opposition as carefully as a man carrying a priceless vase on slippery ground. But it is a misinterpretation of New Labor to think it won by simply biting its lip. The goal of centrists who make painful compromises is to gain an audience for things you won’t compromise on, and Starmer has yet to elaborate on what that is for him. It’s time to feel the fear and say it anyway.