Tuesday 30 April 2024

Herald The Emergence

This week’s local elections will be the last significant electoral test for the main political parties before the next general election. Polls indicate that the Conservatives are certain to receive a drubbing, signalling that the end of the road is near for a government that is exhausted and all out of ideas and ambition. Labour will likely be the main beneficiary, ratifying the party’s position as Britain’s government in waiting.

But beneath these great tidal shifts flows a small eddy and counter-current in the shape of Jamie Driscoll’s independent candidacy for North East Mayor. Having been denied the chance to compete for the Labour nomination despite being the incumbent in North of Tyne, Driscoll resigned from Labour and is running as an independent on a popular platform, backed by an array of left-wingers, trade unionists, and young climate campaigners. The RMT union, unaffiliated to the Labour Party and thus free to endorse who they please, has backed Driscoll with resources and General Secretary Mick Lynch has been out knocking on doors for the campaign.

The only polling data we have shows Driscoll in a statistical dead heat with Labour, suggesting that the race may come down to turnout on the day. But whether he wins or loses on 2 May, his challenge is a harbinger of things to come under a Starmer government.

The paradox of the present moment in British politics is that the opposition is benefiting from government unpopularity while hewing as closely as possible to their policy positions, aiming, in effect, to win by default. Labour’s commanding position in the polls is increasingly understood to be much softer than it appears, built largely upon a rejection of the government and reaction against what has been, for most people, a lost decade that has seen (amongst other things) an unprecedented fall in living standards.

This balancing act has been possible only because Starmer in opposition has been able to exercise a form of ‘political supply control,’ narrowing the policy differences with the Tory government whilst also silencing, for the most part successfully, significant dissent on the left.

Such a strategy is fraught with peril, and cannot hold after the next election, once the Tories are defeated. The palpable lack of enthusiasm for Labour could quickly turn into antipathy and anger if things do not begin to improve under what promises to be yet another do-nothing government unwilling or unable to respond to the present crisis.

The story of British politics since 2014 has been one of a series of recurring revolts against a political-economic model incapable of generating anything but stagnation and decline. The Scottish independence referendum, Corbynism, Brexit – each in its own way represented the boiling over of anger from sections of the public at an unsupportable, unsustainable status quo.

Driscoll’s maverick challenge in the North East gives a sense of what will likely happen to politics after disappointment with Starmerism sets in, when space will open up for independents and for new populist challenges from both left and right.

Take three emblematic issues that a Starmer government will need to address: rebalancing regional economies; addressing economic insecurity, poverty and inequality; and tackling climate change.

On the first, Labour talks about devolving power, but then acts with extreme control freakery. The very act of blocking Driscoll as a Labour candidate (without giving a clear rationale or explanation) demonstrates a taste for centralisation and a lack of respect for pluralism, democracy, and local decision-making.

On the economic struggles many are facing, Labour’s candidate Kim McGuinness says that she wants to be judged as mayor on reducing child poverty but is stuck as the candidate of a party that backs the two-child benefit limit, which has sent over 250,000 children into absolute poverty. Driscoll by comparison has straightforwardly condemned the two-child cap.

On climate change, Labour has drastically rowed back in terms of the scale of its climate commitments; by contrast, Driscoll has put a regional Green New Deal at the centre of his North East manifesto.

If Labour in office fails to take serious action on addressing climate, tackling poverty and inequality, and devolving power and control to left-behind regions, then Starmer’s political honeymoon will be over very quickly.

The political class can only radically constrain democratic choice for so long before generating a backlash. Starmer’s overbearing exercise in political supply control could soon herald the emergence of a whole new set of forces in British political life.

Under such conditions, Jamie Driscoll’s mayoral campaign, his simple message of wanting to make things better for ordinary people but not being prepared to take marching orders from distant elites in Westminster, can be seen as the shape of politics to come.