The Labor survey reveals how the party will govern Britain
For a lawyer, Sir Keir Starmer is surprisingly slow on his feet. The Labor leader had a distinguished career at the Bar but can struggle under light questioning. When Israel launched the attack on Gaza in response to the Hamas attack on October 7, Sir Keir was asked a seemingly simple question in a radio interview: “Is a siege appropriate? Cutting off power, cutting off water, Sir Keir?” Sir Keir replied: “I think Israel has that right.”
The trap was sprung. Clips of the former human rights lawyer seem to confirm what many consider to be war crimes that have gone viral in Labourland, where Israel and Palestine are a toxic issue. Panicky’s supporters pointed out that Sir Keir had said that Israel had to stay within international law, but the damage was done. Dozens of councilors resigned; mps full of emails from anti-Palestinian members and voters. Shadow minister threatened to resign if Sir Keir does not agree to ceasefire; the Labor leader refused, largely to stop Britain being an outlier among its allies. He was stuck, put on by a radio breakfast show dj.
Sir Keir has inspired a month-long streak. Slapdash behavior from Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, led to a funnier incident. Ms. Reeves had found time in her schedule to publish a book titled “The Women Who Made Economics.” Inspector at the Financial Times he noticed that phrases were taken from Wikipedia, the Guard and even one of Ms. Reeves’ own colleagues. In one case, four paragraphs from Wikipedia on the concept of rent seeking were copied almost verbatim.
These two errors tell a story. One is bad, one is stupid. It will not be decided whether Labor will gain power. But each shows how Labor governs when it does.
The bitter conflict over Gaza reminds us that with Labor in power, their neuroses will replace those of the Tories. Britain has spent a decade wrestling with its position in Europe not because voters wanted it, but because Tory mpthey were involved. With Labor in office, topics such as Israel and Palestine become matters of internal political psychodrama rather than cold policy debate. Labor peers will introduce the Balfour Declaration instead of Tory backbenchers waving copies of the Treaty of Rome. It was, after all, an argument about Israel that made Tony Blair realize his time was almost up in 2006.
Party unity is a fragile thing. Sir Keir has strict control over the party, but it has been achieved with sticks rather than carrots. Disagreement will not be tolerated; fringe elements within Labor have been killed off. People within the party have put up with this because they have power. Painful decisions have been passed with little protest as a result. This summer, Labor confirmed it will not remove the two-child limit on child benefit. That would lift 250,000 children, the population of Stoke-on-Trent, out of poverty at a cost of around £1bn ($1.2bn; 0.05% of GDP), but fiscal credit came first. Gaza has shown the limits of control.
Control was part of the Labor leadership’s playing field. The other was functionality. Ms. Reeves’ literary efforts have damaged that part of the field. The shadow chancellor refers to her brief stint as a Bank of England economist in her 20s with the swagger of a former West Ham youth player turning up to play five-a-side football on Monday night . Getting caught quoting a rent-seeking explanation from Wikipedia right into a book isn’t career-ending. But it is deadly.
Labour’s reputation for economic prowess is relative: it depends on the Tories’ intransigence. Labor has not explained how it would differ in government from a conservative on fiscal matters. Ms Reeves has ruled out any tax increase beyond looking at things like there was on private school fees, while keeping close to Tory spending plans. But Tory opinion polls are only four points above where they were under Liz Truss, when her chancellor appeared on television with graphics of a star falling next to his head. Voters would choose anyone else; Labor is anyone else.
The biggest part of Labour’s rise is luck. Sir Keir’s tenure as leader could easily have ended in 2021 after a humiliating by-election loss in the north-east of England and a narrow victory in another. The Tories rode to its rescue in 2022, changing prime ministers twice in two months and causing a financial crisis. Even the argument about Gaza could be worse. Very few voters pay attention to it. Helpful distractions have emerged, such as an investigation into Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic (complete with fake WhatsApp transcripts). Luck cannot be relied upon, however. It was bad luck that an inspector saw loans in Ms Reeves’ book. It was bad practice to put him there.
Step by step
Labor has reached the brink of power by making very few mistakes. This is fortunate, as error correction occurs slowly. A faster leader would not have made his mistake on Gaza in the first place; a more flexible one would be corrected faster. The response to Ms Reeves’ borrowed paragraphs was a delicious mix of denying and admitting, noted one wag. Labour’s slow and steady approach may be an asset against him but will be a liability in office.
Now that a Labor government is seen as inevitable, Westminster journalists have begun to exaggerate the achievements and skills of Sir Keir and Ms Reeves to suit their poll lead. Winter boot season has begun. But what is now considered noble inaction can be called fear. Under Sir Keir, Labor has allowed others to make big policies on its behalf. When it comes to foreign policy, Labor has been happy to follow allies. When it comes to fiscal policy, the party has moved in lockstep with the Tories, creating a new economic consensus. In government, however, Labor sometimes has to go it alone. Sir Keir must learn to be quick on his feet. ■
Read more from Bagehot, our British politics columnist:
The rise and fall of class dysphoria in Britain (October 26th)
How rationing became fashionable under the Tories (October 19)
The rise of a new nanny state in Britain (October 10th)
Also: How Bagehot’s column got its name