10 August 2022

Why a ‘coalition of chaos’ awaits the next Labour government

By James Harris

On a recent trip to Germany, I made use of the €9-Euro-Ticket, a one-off ticket giving you access to all regional transport for a whole month. A fabulous idea, well worthy of adoption in the UK, I thought. I was surprised to learn, however, that it is opposed by the German Finance Minister himself, who fears that it will promote ‘a freeloader mentality’.

In this moment, I had a premonition of a future Labour government arguing with itself. While it seems to me now likely that Labour forms a government after the next election, I also suspect the likelihood is being underestimated of that government being unstable, internally split and, above all, brief.

That is partly due to the nature of the ruling coalitions which would likely be on offer. If Labour does exceptionally well, it might achieve a tiny majority, in which it would then be dependent on the rump of socialist MPs whose chief objection to Keir Starmer is that he is not Jeremy Corbyn.

Merely being in government would, of course, have further inflamed the Labour left by showing them how to win an election; in a situation where Starmer depends on the acquiescence of MPs like Zarah Sultanah, they would surely make the most of the chance to issue demands.

It’s reasonable to suggest, therefore, that Starmer would prefer an agreement of some kind with the Liberal Democrats, the price of which would probably be some kind of constitutional reform – an area where Starmer has shown himself notably timid and unimaginative.

If we are in the realm of negotiating over a minority government, the SNP would likely be making a lot of noise – and though I don’t doubt Starmer would call their bluff, effectively asking them to vote against an alternative to the Tories, that process of bluff-calling is bound to be pretty unedifying.

What it really comes down to your analysis of how bad the situation is. Personally, I think it looks pretty dire for the UK – a degraded public realm, a situation regarding trade with our European partners which is both sub-optimal and undiscussable, and a complete collapse of standards in public life. All of this is going to take years to sort out. Labour, by all accounts, shares this assessment of the damage, and yet the clarity of the leadership’s analysis of the situation seems to be coupled with a complete absence of any realism about the complexity of governing after 2024.

There are salutary lessons from abroad too. We’ve seen in the United States that even if you mobilise a wide coalition to kick out a unifying bogeyman, that unity doesn’t last when in office. At the moment, Labour’s pitch amounts to little more than ‘we’re not the Tories’.

That might be a necessary first step, but a common enemy is not a program for government, and if that program is not properly defined before an election, it risks becoming a matter of permanent contestation among your own internal coalition – a ‘coalition of chaos’, if you will.

Again we can look to the States for a recent example. Though legislatively productive, Biden’s administration failed to get through a landmark climate bill this time last year, partly because the progressive wing of the Democrats refused to compromise. Any governing coalition for Starmer is likely to be just as fractious and tight.

Of all the criticisms aimed at Starmer, the claim he is ‘boring’ is probably the least relevant. Indeed, ‘boring’ hasn’t hurt Anthony Albanese in Australia, or Olaf Scholz closer to home. What has hurt Scholz, however, is that he’s not a very good politician – coming across as perpetually peevish and seemingly overwhelmed by events. Though each country has its own unique circumstances, Starmer should be thinking about two things when he looks at the likes of Biden, Scholz and Macron: how did they get into government, and how can we avoid the fractiousness that has hampered their subsequent attempts at governing?

At the moment though, the feeling I get from the party, and especially Starmer himself, is that they believe a period of ‘decent people’ and technocratic management will convince the electorate of Labour’s merits.

Yet that would be to misread the turbulent nature of our politics, especially in the social media age. If – and it’s still a big if – Starmer does make it to Number 10, he is unlikely to have stable conditions in which to just quietly get on with things. The election of boring and predictable politicians does not create boring and predictable circumstances – just ask Theresa May.

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James Harris is a writer and comedian.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.