Mr Pecksniff’s criticisms of the Labour Party leadership will resonate with many people on the progressive side of politics. He claims that Starmer is “terrified of the electorate” and refuses to offer the bold policies that people need. Is this true, and does it matter?
Firstly, it should be said that listening to the electorate is proper for a party leader in a democracy. Through opinion polls, focus groups and door knocking, we know a lot about what the electorate want, and fear. Of course, leaders should lead, and not simply do what voters tell them, especially since that is often unclear and inconsistent. But a leader who goes too far beyond what the voters think is plausible will never win.
The question is whether there is enough leadership, and whether now is the time for radical promises. And, as Starmer repeatedly points out, without winning the general election, Labour achieves nothing, however virtuous its ideas.
Timid on spending
The party constantly repeats that there will be no unfunded promises. Since the voters traditionally suspect Labour of spending more than we can afford, this is a crucial message, however unpalatable to many on the left. And the polling suggests that the message has still to get through. If there was any doubt about how the electorate, and the international markets, view governments which ignore the principle, we have only to look at the disaster of Liz Truss’s 49 days in power. That experiment is one of the reasons why “there is no money”.
Pecksniff charges Starmer with economic illiteracy. Supporters of modern monetary theory (MMT) and, it seems, Pecksniff, argue that government finances are not like domestic ones. They argue that, in a country with its own independent currency, there is no hard limit on what government can spend. It can print money if it wants, provided the amount of money in circulation does not exceed what the economy can produce. Richard Murphy explains this is a helpful series of videos.
Although this is rejected by traditional economists, the idea makes some sense. But it is counterintuitive. We all understand the idea of money as cash coming in and out of a bank account: you stop spending when the account it empty. The idea of money which MMT advocates is more difficult to grasp. A party which goes into an election promising to rewrite the commonly understood rules of economics will be suspected of playing with smoke and mirrors.
“Making Brexit work”
Pecksniff also ridicules the idea that a Labour government could “make Brexit work”. There is no question that most people now believe we would be better off if it had never happened. In an ideal world we would rejoin. But we are not in an ideal world: do we want the upheaval and conflict which reversing Brexit would bring?
During the seven years we have spent managing Brexit, government has had little capacity to achieve anything else. The work involved would be a major distraction from other priorities, and the terms for joining the EU would be worse than the ones we had.
Polling is clear that Brexit has ceased to be a priority issue for most people. It created very deep and painful wounds and Boris Johnson won the 2019 election with the message “vote for us and we will shut up about Brexit”. There is little evidence that most voters want to go back there.
Given goodwill on both sides, there are many ways in which we can negotiate away some of the problems which Brexit has caused. Starmer has proposed a number. They are modest, and boring, but they could make life much easier for individuals and businesses. As long as they are not called “reversing Brexit”, they are likely to get a fair hearing. Slowly we may inch our way back.
Refusing to vote against bad policies
It may seem obvious, but Labour is not in power. Those angry about the party’s position on the two child limit on Universal Credit seem not to have noticed. Announcing that a Labour government would spend £1.3 billion on reversing the policy would change nothing on the ground now, when the Conservatives have a solid majority in Parliament. Despite the evidence that the two child rule is creating child poverty, the polling is clear that the electorate supports it, including a majority of Labour supporters. Voting against it would change nothing. What activists might see as a strong moral stand, many voters would see as precisely the kind of irresponsible spending commitment which they fear from Labour in power. When the election is near, and we know the state of the economy, there may be better solutions to child poverty. Labour governments have a good track record of achieving that.
Slow to produce a plan
We are in a volatile world, and probably more than a year away from a general election. We have only to look at recent history to see what can happen. In 12 months the Bank of England base interest rate can rise fourfold, and inflation can double. Reasonable spending plans considered in early 2022 look impossible now. The same could well be true for spending plans announced now by the time we come to an election campaign. So, it makes sense to wait until much nearer the election before making concrete promises. And only the sitting government has all the evidence about the state of the economy.
Too low a profile
Pecksniff worries about the polls which show that voters know little about the policies of the main parties. But while they find most people unable to identify a particular policy with a party or its leader, more than three quarters of people think that they are at least “slightly familiar” with the policies on both main parties and their leaders. Since they are not being asked to vote for another year this is not really surprising. Apart from political activists, people have other things to worry about, and understanding party policies does not put food on the table.
Activists fight over and vote for policies, but most people vote negatively, against parties they fear, distrust or think incompetent. The recent by-elections show that this is how people now see the Conservatives. After 13 years, they are tired of the Conservatives, and will vote for change.
Last week’s 15% by-election swing against the Conservatives would be enough to carry Labour comfortably into government without the heroic policies which many progressives would like, but which might alarm undecided voters. Keir Starmer can point to the achievements of past Labour governments, made despite the quite modest promises before elections. Starmer is betting that modest, plausible plans and a track record of delivering might be what people want.
Mr Pecksniff might consider the possibility that he is right.
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