Blair’s jettisoning of the Labour Party’s Clause IV in 1995 marked his commitment to constructing an updated, left of centre, political consensus. His efforts to remove the whiff of socialism from Labour ushered in a new era for the party, facing down internal dissent and signifying to the country that a new policy platform would be built. Labour finds itself in a position today that is similar to 1995: a long period in opposition, the feeling that new ideas are needed to bring the party into government, and a leader pursuing change. So how can Starmer top Blair’s Clause IV moment? By putting it on steroids of course.
In a speech to the Progressive Britain conference, Starmer declared that he would go “further and deeper” than Blair in changing the party’s offering. Starmer made a wide-ranging speech that was more ‘state of politics’ than concrete proposals, but this is the early phase of strategy where he is laying the ground for different Labour identity and agenda to that pursued by Corbyn. His grand talk of restoring “hope” to the country is a leaf out of the Boris Johnson playbook – but hopefully without the division and chaos sowed by Johnson. Much of Starmer’s strategy is traditional Labour. His ‘five missions’ (which haven’t really cut through to the public or to political observers) and other talking points would not look out of place under pretty much any Labour leader. Reform of public services and investing in the NHS are standard Labour fare – the predictable meat at a carvery – and look like part of a plan to bring working class voters firmly back into the Labour fold.
Where Starmer differs from the usual Labour thinking is on conservatism. In his Progressive Britain speech, Starmer charged the Conservatives with no longer being conservative. Their inaction on sewage dumping in rivers and seas, managed dwindling of the BBC and NHS, and neglect of the family and the nation means, to Starmer’s mind, that the Conservatives have ceased conserving anything of value. Starmer goes on to say that “we must understand there are precious things – in our way of life, in our environment, in our communities – that it is our responsibility to protect and preserve and to pass on to future generations. And look – if that sounds conservative, then let me tell you: I don’t care.” This idea that society is a partnership between the dead, the living, and those yet to be born is a Burkean interpretation of conservatism. Not what we would expect from a Labour leader, although it is hardly likely that Starmer will turn into a full-fledged disciple of Edmund Burke or Roger Scruton. Starmer is trying the overcome the distaste many voters had for Corbyn and his agenda by positioning Labour as the solid, reliable party who will be respectful of the positive elements of the past, caring of the needs of the country today, and with an eye on the long-term future. Nice in theory, but how he actually intends to do this will be revealed closer to the next general election. This is an understandable delay. One of the pitfalls of opposition is that if one says nothing then one is criticised for being meaningless, but if one comes up with anything promising then the government will either nick it or neutralise it. We can expect to hear more from Starmer in the months preceding the next general election, but it is looking like he will attempt to reunite working class and progressive middle class voters in a way that is consistent with the successful parts of Labour’s past.
Meanwhile in the Conservative Party, the competition to see who can out-Thatcher Thatcher continues apace. Her agenda, which some argue led to a necessary reset of the country in the last quarter of the 20th century, was a time-limited strategy that cannot be done twice. And yet the obsession with the ideology to which Thatcher gave her name still dominates the Conservative Party today. The Conservative Party remains mostly sceptical, if not downright hostile, to public investment and sufficient government spending. Also concerning for those who worry that the Conservatives are straying from a respectable, centre-right offering to a right-wing nationalist and populist outfit is the recent National Conservatism conference. This conference demonstrates Tim Bale’s observation of the relationship between the party proper and the ‘party in the media.’ Conservative politicians (the likes of Suella Braverman and Jacob Rees-Mogg) joined forces with the party in the media (the likes of Douglas Murray and Tim Stanley) to push for deeper social conservatism and Thatcherite economic policies. Suella Braverman played into the culture wars, saying of Starmer that “given his definition of a woman, we can’t rule him out from running to be Labour’s first female prime minister” and attacking the left for being “ashamed of our history.”
This conference intended to put pressure on Sunak, but is also a salvo in the battle for the direction of the party after the next general election. If in 2019 the Conservatives had Boris and Brexit, in the next general election they will probably have to fall back on culture wars. If, as looks more likely than not, the Conservatives lose the next general election, the party leadership will probably be up for grabs. The National Conservative conference represents the Conservative right wing, arguing from within and without the party for a shift to the right. If this wing of the party comes together in the (possible) aftermath of an approaching general election loss then they could well lead the Conservative Party into the abyss, much as the ‘core vote strategy’ between 1997 and 2005 (under Hague, Duncan Smith, and Howard) left the Conservatives looking ideationally obsolete. This is by no means certain, but the fight for the future of the Conservative Party has already begun and battle lines are being drawn.
We therefore find ourselves in the odd situation of a Labour Party being led by a leader who would not see it as a bad thing to sound like a conservative, and a Conservative Party that isn’t even trying to sound conservative. We must be careful not to overplay Starmer’s conservative comments; he appears to be heading for a social democratic identity and to be seeking an electoral base that will be consistent with Labour traditions, but this is an unusual turning point in his rhetoric. The Conservatives are convulsed by those seeking to win the battle for the future of the party by wrenching it to the right. Both parties have reinvented and redirected themselves many times in the past – that is part of the reason for the Conservatives’ tradition as an extraordinarily successful party – and these latest battles will define the UK as it moves into the post-Brexit era. But this time, it looks like it is Labour that might perform the successful rejuvenation.
Oliver Booth is a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds, specialising in British politics.