Gambling, as we all know, is a mug’s game. However, you would especially question the sanity of the person who walked into a betting shop and placed any healthy money on a Conservative victory at the next general election. Indeed, with 88% of bookies now predicting Keir Starmer as the next occupant of Number Ten, it would seem the equivalent of taking a punt on Bournemouth winning the League, pigs flying, or Joe Biden making a speech in coherent English.
The facts would seem to back this up. The Conservative party, never up there with sliced bread on the popularity list, has managed to alienate pretty much everyone in the country outside the Cabinet, and probably a fair few of those within it. For the left, the Tories are, even more than ever, migrant-hating, child-starving, nurse-bashing evil fascists. However, more worryingly for ‘Dishy’ Rishi, his traditional supporters seem to be abandoning ship too.
Against this backdrop, what I’m about to argue may seem nonsensical: not only will the Tories avoid annihilation in 2024, but they will even hold on to power for another five years. In short, anyone who did make the bet would be very rich indeed.
Before you pitchfork me off to join Liz Truss in the political loony bin, consider some facts. Such was the scale of Boris Johnson’s earthquake in 2019 that Labour would need to pick up over 100 extra seats merely in order to secure a majority of one. This would require a swing greater than that of 1997, the largest landslide in modern political history, and for Labour candidates to overturn majorities upwards of 11,000, demolishing both the ‘red wall’, and the ‘blue wall’.
For this to happen, two things must take place. Firstly, the Tories must lose. Secondly, Labour has to win.
On the first count, remember the iron will of the Conservative party to survive. As its long history shows, it will go to any step, adopt any idea, in order to cling on to power. In Sunak’s case, his plan for survival is based around stability and competence. After the sheer chaos surrounding his two predecessors, the Prime Minister is seeking to ‘make politics boring again’. Despite Labour attempts to continue their attack on ‘Tory sleaze’, this largely seems to be working, and, as a recent poll for Conservative Home shows, his rising popularity among the membership makes any leadership contest before the next election unlikely.
Furthermore, in his outlining of five clear goals, Sunak appears to be proving that his party is capable of achieving things. It is true that these five achievements are not as impressive as they might seem: halving inflation, for instance, has much more to do with global energy prices than with any concrete policy of this government. Nevertheless, there are early signs of success. The Windsor Framework has led to a rapprochement with Europe which has been widely praised. Similarly, the deal with Albania seems to have led to a small but real reduction in the number of ‘small boats’ crossing the channel so far this year. This seems to be translating into success in the polls, with the Spectator’s average moving from a Labour lead of 30% six months ago to 17% now. This leaves a long way to go, but it is progress.
Even if the Conservatives were to throw away the next election, Labour are showing few signs that they will actively win it either. Two things are repeated ad nauseum in praise of Keir Starmer: that he has vanquished the left; and that he has made his party look competent again. Yet, in my submission, these are testament to the paucity of any true achievements. It says much about the arrogance, self-importance, and sheer incompetence of a political party that the fact it is no longer indulging in civil war is touted as a major step forward. Equally, there is a danger of mistaking the appearance of competence for true ability.
On their fundamental policy platform, Labour have forced themselves into an ideological straight jacket, which, though understandable, even necessary, for their political rehabilitation, severely limits their manoeuvrability. On the economy, Rachel Reeves’ commitment to match Conservative spending plans may help her party to ditch its reputation for fiscal incompetence, but also means they cannot outspend the Tories. All very well to sympathize with strikers, but not much use if a Labour government could not up their pay. Likewise, in taking a tougher stance on the so-called ‘culture war’, Sir Keir risks alienating his own activists in order to fight a battle he cannot win.
In this difficult position, Labour has tried the high-minded, intellectualist approach, with a myriad of Delphic slogans, and, to be fair, some genuinely creative policies, like Wes Streeting’s ideas for NHS reform. However, given that most members of the shadow cabinet are unknown outside of their immediate families (John Healey, anyone? Steve Reed?), it is unsurprising this has had little cut-through. And so, this week we have been treated to a new approach, as Starmer has sought to go for the jugular, somewhat implausibly branding dishy Rishi as a latter-day Jimmy Saville, in hoc to the paedophiles of Britain. The problem with this, as was shown in the dismal media rounds, is that Labour MPs do not have the unity or the will to follow this up. They are as implausible as if the class nerd tried to turn into the bully.
This is not necessarily to criticise Starmer. The wider problem is that Labour simply hasn’t faced up to the realignment that has taken place in British politics since it was last in power. Put simply, it will take more than appeals to competence and decency to unite Islington and Workington. Labour can be a middle-class, globalist, technocratic party, or it can return to its roots as a socially conservative, economically interventionalist idea. It cannot do both.
If, in two years’ time, Labour has a majority of 500, I will have no hesitation in eating humble pie. However, until they fully come to terms with the populist realignment, it is my submission that they are doomed to remain in opposition. This is bad for the right, too. With no opportunity to be destroyed and rebuilt, the Tories will continue to fail. The electoral juggernaut will roll on, directionless, intellectually exhausted, and yet unstoppable, to a fifth victory: the most popular unpopular party in political history.
Image Credit poppet with a camera//CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr