British people need policies not platitudes
The weekly spectacle of the clash between the British prime minister and the leader of the opposition, squaring up to each other across the dispatch box during Prime Minister’s Questions, evidently has some entertainment value. However, it still leaves the wider public perplexed as to what either leader and their party proposes in order to salvage the country from the deep political, social and economic crisis it currently finds itself in. These encounters often feel more like a session of cheap point-scoring than a clash between two political gladiators.
Beyond the adversarial format, there is an unacknowledged message that there is no quick fix for the challenges that confront the country. In the face of the cost-of-living and housing crises, the threat (to some) of Scotland leaving the union and the great inequalities in British society, what is required is a vision and a raft of political and social reforms that will address the fundamental structural flaws that perpetuate inequalities, the lack of social mobility and the lack of agility to cope with a fast-moving world. It also demands acknowledgement that there are no immediate benefits to Brexit, that the public sector needs to be empowered and properly rewarded and that the private sector, regardless of the important part that it plays in a modern economy, does not have all the solutions and needs to be better regulated to protect consumers.
Both the Conservative and the Labour leaders reached their lofty positions after a relatively short time in politics, entering parliament only in 2015. Yet, Rishi Sunak has the more difficult job because, since last October, when he became 2022’s third Conservative prime minister, he has had to position himself as not as erratic as Boris Johnson, not as detached from reality as Liz Truss and not as irresponsible as both of them were in office. He started his recent campaign to win the trust of the British people from the low point of 49 percent of poll respondents expressing their intention to vote for Labour, while only 23 percent supported the Conservatives, and while nearly 50 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the way he has been running the country. It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is not much that Sunak and his government can do to stop their party from losing the next general election, and that it is for Labour to lose.
Both leaders were off the mark in their new year speeches outlining the direction they would like British politics to take. There was nothing approaching a grand vision in the Tory leader’s armory — a mere five-point plan that stated the obvious and sounded like a desperate attempt to plug a hole in a dam that has already burst. Halving the rate of inflation, growing the economy, reducing public debt, reducing National Health Service waiting lists and ending the small-boat crisis are all commendable objectives, but without details and concrete policies they amount to very little.
The Bank of England expects inflation to fall of its own accord, as a result of developments in the international markets, but households will still be left with huge energy bills and higher mortgage payments because interest rates will remain high and the economy has not seen the end of these price increases. It is a reflection of the failure not only to stop inflation earlier, but also to reform the energy market and to properly regulate a property market that is now out of control and out of reach for many people, while others are likely to see their houses repossessed.
Both the NHS crisis and the small-boat crisis touch on two very sensitive issues for the Conservative Party, especially its right wing. The British people cherish their public health service and very few believe it to be safe in the hands of a party of free marketeers whose instinct is to privatize all public services, and Sunak is a Thatcherite through and through. Instead of supporting nurses and ambulance drivers, who struggle with low remuneration and impossible workloads due to lack of capacity, his government would rather curb their right to strike.
Similarly, although most immigrants arriving at the shores of the UK by small boat are indeed economic migrants, exploited by unscrupulous smugglers while risking their lives, Sunak’s reactive response is more a case of deflecting attention from his lack of an immigration policy fit for the post-Brexit era and of merely placating the xenophobes in his party and the UK’s right-wing media. Unlike his predecessors, Sunak comes across as one who is highly intelligent but, as time goes by, he looks out of sorts and increasingly unable to serve the interests of the wider public while at the same time keeping his party together.
Keir Starmer, on the other hand, is getting a better grip on being the leader of the opposition. He has taken the party from one of its lowest ebbs after the last general election and established himself and Labour as a viable alternative. For his lack of charisma, he compensates with integrity and a sharp legal mind. He has already built a very competent team around him and distanced himself from the toxic Jeremy Corbyn era. Nevertheless, he has yet to present any grand vision for a modern Britain.
Sunak looks out of sorts and increasingly unable to serve the interests of the wider public while keeping his party together.
Disappointingly, for someone who was an ardent supporter of remaining in the EU, he now speaks the language of Brexit, which puts a dent in his principled politician image. Yet, there was enough in his new year speech to suggest something of a radical streak in him, including his pledge that the country under Labour would get 100 percent of its power generation from clean, sustainable sources by 2030 and that he would establish a new, publicly owned energy generation company; his opposition to anti-strike legislation; and his intention to reverse the fortunes of the NHS by allowing public investment without losing fiscal discipline.
Labour has already introduced a new industrial strategy to increase the UK’s poor productivity rate in comparison to other G7 countries, concentrating on the high-innovation industries. And above all, Starmer does not shy away from the need for constitutional reforms of parliament, including the House of Lords, and devolution of economic powers to local authorities, something which might make a reality out of the Conservatives’ hollow promises of “leveling up.”
While the Tories are not oblivious to the uphill struggle they face to stand any chance of winning the next general election while internally divided and with little credibility among the electorate, Labour cannot afford to be complacent. It is not enough for it to sit and watch the government fail and fall; rather, the party must continue to build a convincing agenda, assure voters of its competence and also embrace the principles of social justice and mobility.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg