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Keir Starmer should have no hope He needs to channel Thatcher's pessimism

Prepare for disappointment. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)


October 17, 2023   6 mins

Optimism is crucial to success in democratic politics. There is plenty of evidence to back up this platitude. Bill Clinton came from the town of Hope in Arkansas, and never let voters forget it. An advertisement for Ronald Reagan in 1984 opened with “It’s morning in America again”.  New Labour marched to the soundtrack of “Things Can Only Better”.

By contrast, only a small number of Grinches with long memories and cynical dispositions point out that Churchill opened his wartime premiership with the promise of nothing but “blood, sweat and tears”. (His government of 1951, by contrast, promised to “set the people free” and ended up being, even in the eyes of his greatest admirers, an embarrassing shambles.) As for Reagan, his success owed at least as much to fear — of the Soviet Union, of national decline, of urban disorder — as it did to hope. Rambo not Rockie is the film to watch if you want to understand American politics in the early Eighties. We Grinches would point out that the most successful politician of recent times, Donald Trump, trades on the feeling that “carnage” is just around the corner.

Of course, the Left has a particular problem. It is, or has been, about selling change. Left-wing candidates have usually sought to persuade their supporters that things can get better, whereas British Conservatives argued that change was likely for the worst.

This brings us to the current state of the Labour Party. A few years ago, it looked as though Starmer would be Neil Kinnock — painfully leading his party back to electability but not quite fast enough to get elected himself. Now everything is going right for him. He is ahead in the opinion polls; his party is disciplined; his opponents — the SNP as much as the Conservatives — are falling apart. Prudent commentators talk of the dramatic swing that would be necessary for Labour to get an absolute majority in parliament, but my own money is on something close to a landslide.

This is not, though, quite the same as saying that Labour should be optimistic. In his conference speech last week, Starmer blamed the Tories for “kicking the hope out”. But this is not a hopeful time. Tony Blair came to power in almost uniquely propitious circumstances. Norman Lamont lost the Tories their reputation for economic competence with the sharp drop in the value of the pound on Black Wednesday of 1992, but Labour inherited the benefits of Ken Clarke’s competent Chancellorship that followed Lamont’s dismissal. Blair also reaped the results of patient negotiation by the Major government in Northern Ireland. This was good news for the province but also for the climate in Westminster: for the first time since the Sixties, senior ministers could walk the streets without a phalanx of nervous-looking bodyguards.

Conditions beyond the reach of the British government’s policy were also good. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that peace and democracy seemed to be on the rise. Almost everywhere except North Korea, spending on armaments dropped in the Nineties. World-weary commentators had spent years saying countries that had lived under Communist rule would take decades to adjust to liberal democracy but, as it turned out, the Czech Republic — one of the more repressive countries in the eastern bloc during the Eighties — was a liberal democracy within a few years. Even China seemed to have moved away from the repression of 1989, which was why the handover of Hong Kong did not, in the short term, produce the exodus that some had expected.

Compare this with what is likely to hit the next Labour government. If Keir Starmer becomes prime minister, he will face the worst circumstances that any new British prime minister has faced since May 1940. The sadistic relish with which Jeremy Hunt references economic figures makes one suspect that, first, he has given up all hope of buying the next election with tax cuts and, second, he does not even want to buy the next election because he knows that the consequences of Brexit and Covid may still be making themselves felt in five years’ time. And that’s not to mention the larger, sometimes existential, problems that the next government is going to face: Putin, Trump, China, climate change.

So, the model for an incoming Starmer government should not be Blair’s victory in 1997 but Thatcher’s in 1979. She was not swept into power by a wave of hope; she floated in on a tide of despair. The Labour Party was exhausted after five years of trying to rule with a tiny minority. One of its most important leaders, Roy Jenkins, had effectively given up on the party. Not that the Tories were bouncing with excitement. At the time, the body thinking most usefully about the future of the Conservative Party was The Authority of Government Group: it met in an atmosphere of Eeyorish gloom. Its members thought that the power of the unions, among other things, might make Britain ungovernable — they were particularly worried by the prospect of future miners’ strikes, which they thought they would be unable to “win”. Some of them privately admired the Callaghan Labour government of 1976 to 1979, and doubted whether they would be able to do any better if they were elected.

Britain today is gripped by the same kind of pessimism that prevailed in the late Seventies — and Starmer needs to recognise this. The Labour Party should act within its constraints rather than acting as their job is to cheer everyone up with a group sing song. Indeed, nothing will undermine the Tories more than their recent, and most un-Tory, displays of optimism. Rishi Sunak’s new slogan seems to be “Long-term decisions for a brighter future”. If I were a Labour strategist, I would plaster the country with photographs of a grinning Boris Johnson having his cake and eating it.

Labour should play down expectations. It is often said that the public have lost faith in politicians. This is the exact opposite of what has happened. They have lost respect for politicians but, in some respects, this is precisely because they have too much faith in them. The public has come to treat politics as 17th-century peasants treated witchcraft — as a source of unlimited, if often malign, power. The fact that the NHS has long waiting lists in the aftermath of Covid is assumed to be the result of incompetence or bad intentions by ministers, rather as crop failure would once have been regarded as the result of some unpopular old woman putting toads in her cauldron.

Thatcher’s great achievement was to persuade people that there are many things that a government cannot do much about. Furthermore, when a government can do something, it invariably means making ruthless decisions about the balance between harm and good; as Nigel Lawson, quoting the French politician Pierre Mendès France, put it in his resignation speech: “To govern is to choose.” For Thatcher, this insight was applied to the economy: subsidies were withdrawn from industries that were bound to fail. The area of brutal choice for Starmer will be the environment.

Currently, the Labour leader is running scared from the result of the Uxbridge by-election, where opposition to Sadiq Khan’s measures against the most polluting cars seemed to account for an unexpected Tory victory. Starmer is also given to spouting nonsense about how everyone will benefit from a “Green industrial revolution”, when the truth is that protecting the future of the planet — or even just protecting the lungs of children who are unfortunate enough to live near the Westway flyover — is not going to come from a cosy, win-win solution. People, particularly vociferous middle-aged men, will be made to stop doing things that they want to do. Similarly, Starmer, who campaigned so energetically against Britain leaving the European Union, can hardly now plausibly claim that there is a “good Brexit” — especially at a time when the public seems to be losing faith that such a thing exists. Starmer should level with voters: his negotiations with Europe will be an exercise in damage control.

The other lesson of 1979 is that parties should not be sentimental about their voters. Many Tories were heartbroken that Scots abandoned them in that election: it is said that “Rab” Butler told Thatcher that she would have Scotland engraved on her heart as Mary Tudor had Calais, lost to the English crown in 1558, engraved on hers. But it was a small price to pay for winning seats in Essex or the Midlands. Labour should write off part of the Red Wall vote. Losing Birmingham Northfield, a working-class seat that used to revolve around the Longbridge car plant, is a small price to pay for holding every other seat in the city. There has been much talk recently of the “woke elite” holding “luxury beliefs” when it comes to, say, immigration — but “woke elite” in this context really means an educated middle class that is larger than ever before, and politically engaged. In truth, there would be no more self-indulgent luxury for the Labour Party than to hold on to a diminishing group of traditional working-class voters out of nostalgia, as if Left-wing politics is a Hovis ad.

Of course, there are some respects in which the first Thatcher government is a bad model for Starmer. Thatcher was lucky because Britain became a net exporter of oil early in her government and because General Galtieri was stupid enough to give her an opportunity for an easy military victory and, thus, a much higher level of electoral support. This meant that, for her first few years, Thatcher just had to survive, whereas she could afford to be radical — even, sometimes, optimistic — after the 1983 election. It is hard to imagine fortune smiling in this way on any British government in the next few years — and easy to imagine scenarios, such as a Russian attack on Poland, that would make a sizeable dent in Starmer’s good luck.

Unlike Thatcher, Starmer cannot afford to wait. He should take brave and controversial decisions early on — prioritising those, such as making some serious progress on the HS2 rail line, that would be hard for any subsequent government to reverse. Because for all his optimism, he cannot bet on a second term. Perhaps, in short, the best hope for the next Labour government would be to start with as little hope as possible.


Richard Vinen is Professor of History at King’s College, London. His book Second City: Birmingham and the Forging of Modern Britain is out now.


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Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
9 months ago

So let me get this straight.

Once Sir Keir has turned his back on the Red Wall, Brexiteers, the working class and vociferous middle aged men everything will be okay. He will march triumphantly into number 10.

Yup. I can see a few holes in this plan.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 months ago

What Non Doms? They are not stupid. Told by vindictive class warriors that they will be squeezed to fund the 200bn NHS singlehandedly, all have now packed up and taken all their horrible horrible money to Paris or Dubai. Rachel will come for isas, pensions dividends, savings and probably – in desperation – some property wealth tax to feed the broken greedy monstrosity that it the British State. Run if you can.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Yep, coming, for example:
https://youtu.be/ZRympCaiOJ4?si=KHTqyv7pLknxtsrP

Just not at all convinced it would be any different under the Tories.

Last edited 9 months ago by Prashant Kotak
Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yes, Establishment Groupthink has already seen the Fake Tories/Tory Brownities describe income as ‘unearned’ and bow to the warped Dogma that insists taxation is only for redistribution/equalitarian purposes – not the incentivisation of enterprise. But they may wake up. The difference is that Starmerism is a giant con; they steal Thatcher speeches and wrap themselves in a pro business union jack. But its all a lie – they still seethe with class war vindictiveness (all masked bar the war on private schools/non doms). Not one MP believes in private enterprise. All are servants and worshippers of the Big Bad State.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
9 months ago

Never interrupt your opponents when they are offering advice like this.

David McKee
David McKee
9 months ago

Oh dear, another Brexit obsessive… well, never mind.

Thatcher won in 1979 because she convinced the electorate that she had a plan. And she did. She and her allies had put in the hard work in opposition to assemble and promote a workable strategy – most notably, in taming the unions. There were no big surprises in the manifesto, unlike Theresa May’s ‘dementia tax’ that appeared out of nowhere.

She sold confidence to the voters, not hope.

Starmer and Reeves have not put in the spade work. So how can they convince the voters they have a workable plan?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

I don’t agree Starmer and Reeves have not put in the spade work, I think they are very well prepared for their priorities – they ‘took the knee’ for BLM (the very same BLM, I note, which stands strong with the genocidal paragliders, but let’s move on from that, nothing to see here). And I bet they could both recite backwards the entire pronoun alphabet.

Last edited 9 months ago by Prashant Kotak
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
9 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

She and her team had a plan, a philosophy, a coherent set of principles, they believed profoundly in rolling back the state, and they spoke convincingly. No politician today has such, except for Corbyn and he is dangerous and wrong

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago

the truth is that protecting the future of the planet … is not going to come from a cosy, win-win solution

It’s not going to come from anything Starmer does either. Labour will wreck the economy and kill thousands of people in the name of saving the planet and it won’t make even a sliver of difference. You know that, I know it, this writer knows it – but it will happen anyway. That’s the extent of the pseudo-religious idiocy we’ve sunk into.

David Webb
David Webb
9 months ago

There’s plenty to blame successive Tory administrations for … but is there anything that Starmer and his team would have done any better? Mostly worse I suspect, whether it’s lockdown, excessive spending, or population growth without the housing and other infrastructure to support it.
What are the big ideas now? More tax on the non-doms, which will probably lead to a lower take for the Treasury. VAT on private education, which will mean the taxpayer paying for the schooling of more children, plus a bit of rural unemployment, and loss of income from overseas. Making it easier to call strikes – we’ve been there before.
At least Blair and Brown had ideas, even if they were mostly about spending more taxpayers’ money.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago
Reply to  David Webb

Yes, social democracy is over, isn’t it? All the levers have been pulled so hard that they’re now coming off in the politicians’ hands.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
9 months ago

People, particularly vociferous middle-aged men, will be made to stop doing things that they want to do

Like running small businesses building, making, repairing and delivering stuff. Still, it’s got to be done, hasn’t it…

Last edited 9 months ago by Simon Neale
Steven Carr
Steven Carr
9 months ago

‘ In truth, there would be no more self-indulgent luxury for the Labour Party than to hold on to a diminishing group of traditional working-class voters’
A diminishing group of traditional voters….
I wonder what is replacing that group of traditional voters in Britain.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

When Blair came to power in 1997 most people worked for large companies or the government. Nowadays most of us work in small businesses, our own or someone else’s. Small businesses pay the taxes and provide the employment that keep the country going. Can you name three members of the parliamentary Labour Party who have any experience of this sector – or even know someone who does? I can’t. The Tories are not much better. Both parties are far too busy pandering to the professional and media classes to even notice the opportunity that exists here.
Interestingly the only leading politician who talked about this at the conferences was Nigel Farage.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
9 months ago

I don’t know how old Professor Viven is, but for those of us Americans who were young all throughout Reagan’s two terms in office, we were anything but fearful.
In fact, we enjoyed enormous prosperity (remember yuppies?), most of us knew the Soviet Union was a toothless wreck (we all laughed at Wendy’s Soviet fashion show commercial: “Svimvere”), HBO and MTV were awesome new forms of quality home entertainment. PCs were beginning to enjoy broad popular use. Movies like “E.T.”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Gandhi”, “Chariots of Fire” and “Beverly Hills Cop” would never be made today (I shudder to imagine it). Comedians were funny and filled stadiums, race relations were vastly improved to the point where interracial marriage was no biggie, homosexuality was widely accepted (even during the AIDS crisis) . . . I could go on, but the fact is, the optimism was palpable everywhere and felt by virtually everyone, all night long, to quote Lionel Richie.
If you’re going to cite a period in America, even in passing, it would be good idea to know something about it from an American perspective.

Last edited 9 months ago by Allison Barrows
George Venning
George Venning
9 months ago

1979 is surely a vastly better point of reference for the next referendum than 1997. It took place in the ruins of the post-war consensus. Thatcher might have been lucky to survive long enough to get radical in 1983 but she did recognise that the consensus had run its course. And boy did she get radical once she had the chance. She sold off more of the state than any other Government on Earth barring, possibly, Pinochet’s Chile and far outstripping Reagan’s US. She didn’t just tame the unions, she smashed them – leaving the British Labour market one of the most capital friendly in the developed world. She de-regulated finance and allowed it do essentially as it liked.
For all of his landslide in 97, Tony Blair accepted the new common sense that Thatcher had established – what, after all was his calling card as the coming man of Labour? The abolition of Clause 4. Even for people like me, it’s quite hard to fault him for that – Britain’s economy was scarcely a basket case at the time.
Fast forward to now and Thatcher’s chickens have come home to roost.
All our major firms and employers are not only privately owned but foreign owned. Wages are lower than in almost all comparable economies, which raises the benefit bill and erodes the tax base. There’s no Council housing to accommodate the low paid (and the stuff Thatcher sold is largely in the hands of private landlords charging twice the rent).
Smashed into a thousand pieces, the telecoms sector is still struggling to build the fibre-based internet that the GPO was planning for in the 80s (along with Japan and Korea) and had to abandon in order to be readied for sale. A privatised railway system has sucked all the relevant expertise into a maze of competing consultants, so that the most expensive high speed line in the world will reach neither of its planned termini. For all its faults, that would have been unimaginable under BR.
The schools are falling down because they weren’t rebuilt within their planned service lives. Private water companies are covering the nation and its rivers in sewage and still paying themselves handsome dividends and, apparently, no-one has the first idea how to stop them doing so. We have the highest fuel costs in the OECD because we’ve created a market mechanism that prices all energy at the cost of the most expensive unit. Deregulated building control looked the other way while an unknown number of tall buildings were effectively clad in petrol. And on, and on.
The post-Thatcher consensus is a dead duck.
And Starmer’s answer to all this is… the same but with fewer parties in Number 10.
The Labour party is fond of saying that the only thing that counts is power. Without that, you can’t change anything. It is cant. Saying it absolves them of the first task of parties in opposition – which is to change people’s conception of common sense.
They haven’t, they won’t. They tie themselves in knots to place themselves in the wheeltracks of the worst Government most people can remember.
But the truth is that the scale of change we need is not 1997, it’s not even 1979. It’s 1948.

DenialARiverIn Islington
DenialARiverIn Islington
9 months ago

Covid and Brexit……???
Why do you guys get this so wrong all of the time? By far the biggest problem the G7 faces is absolutely the consequence of money being far, far too cheap for much too long. QE is, as it was always going to be, a terrible disaster. The debt hangover facing Starmer is completely unfixable. He can’t borrow more and taxation is maxed and yet we’re STILL spending more than £100bn more than we earn annually.
This means cuts to health, education and welfare whilst, at the same time, military spending must increase.
He’s had it. He really has. If I were him, I would be doing everything in my power to lose the next election.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago

The author’s spelling is, um, Rocky.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
9 months ago

The ‘highly educated middle class’ have been ‘educated’ largely with propaganda unfortunately.. Sad 🙁

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

Sir Keir is simply a Eurofederal technocrat in waiting. His Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves is the key figure in the new euro project, getting the economy prepped for monetary union again.

AC Harper
AC Harper
9 months ago

You could feel sorry for Starmer. Put in charge of Labour to make it electable again and (perhaps) put in charge of the Government to allow the Conservatives time to recharge.
Not just an administrator – more of a professional ‘insolvency practitioner’.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
9 months ago

“…there would be no more self-indulgent luxury for the Labour Party than to hold on to a diminishing group of traditional working-class voters out of nostalgia…”

They may be ‘diminishing’, we are all ‘diminishing’ unless you have found a genetic cure for mortality, but weren’t they ‘undiminished’ enough to give the party a big kicking in 2019? Or did you think all of those people will have broken on through to the other side because of covid?

________________________

So I’m a wrinkly, crinkly, set in my ways.
It’s true my body as seen better days.
But give me half a chance and I can still misbehave.

Last edited 9 months ago by Prashant Kotak
odd taff
odd taff
9 months ago

I don’t really agree with this article. Sir Keir has never struck me a cheerful sort. I know Rishi is a teetotaller but he would be better company down the pub than sour faced Keir.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
8 months ago

There is quite a lot of sense in this article, especially with regards to governments being able to click their fingers and solve every problem (especially, though the author didn’t say so) by spending public money.

However there are some really jarring notes. It is extraordinary that the one policy or proposal that he specifically advocates is the completion of HS2, presumably at pretty much any cost. I suppose this is a metropolitan elite project par excellence, of utter irrelevance to most people in the country except that they are paying the (unaffordable) bills. In addition, the characterisation of anyone not fully on board with the Net Zero agenda as an angry middle class motorist is simplistic rubbish, completely detached from reality.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
9 months ago

Who can forget Blair, Prescott and Mandelson twitching in an embarrassed fashion to D:Ream after their win ?

What will Starner, Rayner and Lammy be dancing to ?

Answers on a postcard…

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
9 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Red red whine?

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
9 months ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Bravo, sir. I was trying to come up with something on the theme of Starmer’s constant u-turns but nothing sprang to mind.

What about ‘You can’t hide your lying eyes ‘ ?

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
9 months ago

I wonder when the free-market ideology of the Thatcher government stopped being something people talked about. Must have been Blair and Brown not contesting it in 1997.
Nah, she just got lucky as a net exporter of oil, indeed.

Tony Price
Tony Price
9 months ago

I quite like the article, but for a senior Professor of History to misquote Churchill’s most famous words in only the second para is somewhat off-putting! And no-one else has commented on that. [for those who sadly don’t know, it was “blood, toil, tears and sweat” NOT ‘blood, sweat and tears’!!!

DenialARiverIn Islington
DenialARiverIn Islington
9 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

I guess being a professor of History must be the principal reason that he doesn’t appear to understand the macro economic reasons behind Britain’s fiscal problem. He’s also in London! No wonder he’s obsessed with Brexit……..

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Cambridge 1982-9. Need I say more?

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
9 months ago

A good article except for the comment that Galtieri handed Mrs Thatcher ‘an easy military victory’.Galtieri would not have invaded if he thought Britain would win .And arguably Brown,Chamberlain,Macdonald, Theresa May,Sunak and Wilson might have done a peace deal instead of fighting.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago

Blimey an article in Unherd that suggests Brexit might not have been such a great idea after all. Guaranteed lots of positive feedback!