7 July 2024

Taking back Labour’s borrowed clothes


This was, we are told by the analysts, less a pro-Labour than an anti-Conservative election. The public voted, overwhelmingly, to get the Tories out. The message was clear: people have lost faith in the Conservative Party’s competence, integrity and their ability to deliver promises. Nothing seems to work, the electorate feel worse off and – reasonably enough – they blame the people who were in charge for the last 14 years.

Yet for all that, the country has voted for a party dressed in Tory clothes. Labour won by positioning themselves as the party of economic growth, stability and moderation. As he addressed the nation from outside 10 Downing Street, Keir Starmer even promised with a straight face that he would lead a government ‘unburdened by doctrine’ and that his administration would ‘tread more lightly on your lives’.

He can get away with this, despite a manifesto committed to government activism, because the offer provides such a stark contrast to today’s Conservatives. The party of enterprise have vacated their traditional ground to preside over a period of economic stagnation, redistribution and unprecedented state intrusion more characteristic of a government of the Left.

These are topsy-turvy times. Yet the British public hasn’t changed what it wants, it has just made clear that it won’t keep voting for a party that no longer deliver.

Even as the Conservative Party survey the rubble where their parliamentary majority used to be, they should take heart at this constancy in public sentiment. Because for all Starmer’s promises, he has no mandate for revolution and he will find it much harder to deliver traditional Tory outcomes without Tory means.

Starmer is comfortable calling himself a socialist. His agenda may be focused on growing the economy but his approach is corporatist and intervention-heavy. More red tape for employers. Industrial policy to direct the economy. Labour’s commitment to planning reform offers a rare bright spot, but even here their over-reliance on central direction may not be enough to solve the problem.

The next Conservative leader has an opportunity to stand up and reclaim a very different answer: one that relies on low taxes, low regulation and letting the energy and entrepreneurialism of the British people rip. The best thing about this approach is that it actually works. As both Pierre Poilievre’s Conservative opposition in Canada and New Zealand’s governing National Party are already demonstrating.

Labour have changed, but not that much. In government, their first and last instinct is still to solve every problem using the levers of the state. They can only get away with that while dressed in Tory colours because today’s Conservative Party have too often given up on making the case for enterprise. Rishi Sunak’s plans to ban the sale of tobacco for those born after 2009 and to introduce a football regulator will both be seen through under Labour. Why not, after all? They could have written these policies themselves.

Yet as recent Conservative governments found, such an approach does little to guarantee prosperity. Starmer promises technocratic competence, but so did Sunak. That will not be enough to transform his top-down approach into a successful recipe for national renewal.

As Labour’s honeymoon fades, and the costs mount, there will be room again for the Conservatives to offer a return to individual enterprise. The facts of life, as Margaret Thatcher once said, do invariably turn out to be Tory. It is easy now for Labour to promise to be the party of moderation and prosperity, but delivery is likely to require greater belief in the British people, and less trust for government power.

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Marc Sidwell is Editor of CapX.