How do you progressively govern a country whose electorate is dominated by essentially non-progressive interests? This is one of the many, many questions to which Sir Keir Starmer’s 90-minute speech to Labour conference offered no answers.
There were plenty of others, of course. What would the Opposition do about the scourge of grade inflation, for example. How can plausibly claim to be ‘the party of international alliances’ whilst voting against AUKUS? Why there was a fleeting mention of ‘the difference Mark Drakeford and his team have made in Wales’ but no details about their actual achievements?
Yet these are common-or-garden, slogan-but-no-plan problems that afflict any politician with the luxury of not being in power. There were promises of plans, promises of money, promises to keep promises. The details will sort themselves out later.
One section, however, alluded to a much more profound problem facing Labour or any party that seeks to take up the mantle of inter-generational equity. See if you can spot it:
‘And let me tell you this conference, an unfair tax hike that doesn’t fix social care and doesn’t clear the NHS backlog, is not a plan. We know that people will still be forced to sell their homes to pay for care. Working people will have to pay more. But there is still no plan.’
There’s plenty of wisdom in there. The social care levy is cartoonishly unfair. There really is no plan. Working people will have to say more. So far, so good.
But tucked away in the middle is a swipe at the idea that people will be forced to sell their homes. Upon that rock, the entire illusion of a serious Labour alternative founders.
There are two ways of paying for social care. First, you get people who can afford it to contribute towards the costs of their own care. Second, you make working-age people pay more instead.
Labour don’t have a plan. But their ‘National Care Service’ slogan suggests they actually want to set something up which mirrors the NHS, the all-consuming Charybdis which is already devouring an increasingly unsustainable share of public spending.
Central to the Health Service model – and one of the biggest problems with it – is that it doesn’t simply guarantee universal access to healthcare but insists on providing it to everyone on the same terms. Inevitably, that means it is paid for out of taxes, and taxes fall on working people.
Starmer’s attack on the prospect of people who own fabulously valuable (and artificially scarce) assets being forced to sell them means only one thing: that if his government did take any concrete steps to solve the care crisis, it would find the money elsewhere. Which in practice means Labour would make working people pay to protect the inheritances of the children of well-off older voters.
This has been described, accurately, as ‘the inversion of the welfare state’. It’s hard to imagine something more remote from what Labour is supposed, in theory, to be about.
But it reflects a hard truth: that with today’s electorate – and even more with tomorrow’s electorate – the only plausible path to national power runs through the Boomers.
We can already see this bending the supposedly-progressive parties out of shape. The Liberal Democrats knocked their hole in the ‘blue wall’ in Chesham and Amersham by pandering to home-owners convinced that a constituency that consists of two tube stations surrounded by fields is the wrong place to build new houses. The Greens oppose public transport projects that could cut millions of car journeys a year in part because felling a few trees upsets voters who scrumped apples from them after the War.
Meanwhile Labour tells itself that the Government’s proposals to ease planning restrictions are the result of a developer conspiracy (presumably different developers to the ones doing all the nefarious land-banking).
On both housing and social care, the Opposition seem doomed to offer only sticking-plaster solutions because any structural fix will involve asking millions of voters to make sacrifices they’ll refuse to make. Even if either party sought to take a stand – as the Conservatives sort of did on housing – the other will seize the opportunity to pander. Both will soon learn to pander all the time.
How do you do left-wing politics when, as Wessie du Toit phrases it, one has to ‘accept, or merely to suspect, that radical change is off the table?’ – especially when the very regressive force ranged against you owes its existence to the myths you have spent decades promulgating about the cradle-to-grave state your party still considers its finest achievement?
I don’t know. And it seems clear, after 90 minutes of my life I’m not going to get back, that nor does Starmer. For younger voters, the next few decades of electoral politics could play out like Alien versus Predator: whoever wins, we lose.
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