August 18, 2023 - 4:30pm

Every July several thousand trade unionists converge in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle. They do so to commemorate the Tolpuddle Martyrs — and what is widely regarded as the genesis of the British Labour movement.

When I attended last summer, it was obvious the crowds were much smaller than during the Corbyn era. Perhaps the lingering memory of Covid was why, but even for those present it was clear that the energy of recent years had gone. 

There were some exceptions, however. One was Angela Rayner. Taking to the stage Labour’s deputy leader was every inch the firebrand and felt like an emissary from the recent past. Labour would scrap zero hours contracts she cried, while workers in the gig economy would immediately benefit from getting the Tories out. Importantly, there would be a single category of worker endowed with rights from day one. 

I was sceptical about these promises at the time, and it now appears such scepticism was warranted, at least partially, with the Financial Times reporting that Labour wants to row back on workers’ rights by watering down elements of its “New Deal for Working People.

That isn’t to say Rayner is in on it. The briefing to the FT likely came from those close to Peter Mandelson, and the New Deal for Workers Rights is the only remaining area where Rayner’s imprint is notable. The point, then, is to underscore that she has lost control of this crucial policy area — and is increasingly irrelevant.

Rayner has always been a strange figure within the emerging uniparty of Westminster. Rather than coming from the Labour Left, she is simply a trade unionist who joined the ranks of the political class and wants to fight for working people. Given 90% of her parliamentary colleagues attended university, she is something of a throwback. 

Yet even a figure like Rayner, whose biography embodies Labour raison d’etre, is too radical for the dominant forces within her own party. Why? Because her default isn’t to genuflect before the business lobby, and equate their demands with “common sense” and “pragmatism”.

Alongside radical supply side reforms in addressing the country’s major problems — namely the need for cheap energy and cheap housing — there also needs to be a sustained pursuit to increase productivity and for real wages to rise. But for the passenger politics of Jeremy Hunt and Rachel Reeves, this is simply too close to actually doing something. 

On issue after issue the two major parties agree…on inaction. One could call this a “consensus”, but I think that’s wrong given the ideas and presumptions were never debated in the first place. Public ownership of water? Both parties reject it, but it’s just that Labour wants to, performatively, make it seem they are committed to reform.

On fiscal rules, both parties are committed to national debt falling as a percentage of GDP over a parliament term — making Labour’s pledge to not include capital expenditure within deficit targets broadly irrelevant. Meanwhile both parties support tuition fees. It’s just that Labour MPs are more likely to virtue signal that they were, in fact, the first person in their family to  attend university. Good for them.

Is Labour the party of Angela Rayner or the Tony Blair Institute? Because, for all the talk of a coalition, it increasingly feels like it can’t be both while upholding its basic commitments. This should be overwhelmingly obvious given Blair’s desire to “renew the centre” — an entreaty which means little beyond overseeing national decline and allowing the winners in today’s winner-takes-all economy to become yet richer still. 

Does any of this matter? Perhaps, but only when those cheering Rayner on that sunny Dorset day understand the scale of what is happening. With Labour in office they may end up building coalitions with various other deplorables. That, more than anything else, is what the uniparty fears most.

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism.