New Order?

James Butler

Kier Starmer and Rachel Reeves visiting Southampton docks, 17 June 2024. Photo © Stefan Rousseau / PA Images / Alamy

This election is both boring and frustrating. Boring because the general shape of its result is already clear and only the secondary questions remain: how large will Labour’s majority be? Will the Conservatives be annihilated, or merely reduced to a seething and squabbling rump? Frustrating because it is conducted in conditions of general unreality, on manifestos nobody believes, in a daily media cycle which shuttles between cliché – my toolmaker Dad loved a long-term plan – and outright lie.

It is also frustrating because, despite the airlessness of the campaign, it is an enormously consequential election. This is in part because Sunak and his predecessors, sunk in intrigue, have passed so little substantive legislation. The Rwanda plan is an expensive gimmick of ostentatious cruelty aimed squarely at the right-wing press. Most of the Tories’ headline measures have fallen by the wayside. ‘Levelling-up’ proceeds at the pace of continental drift. Sunak’s pet legislation, an age-linked tobacco ban, has vaporised. Proposed rights for renters are in deep freeze. In the achievements column, he can chalk up increased powers against protesters, a tawdry law controlling speech in universities, and beefed up punishments for people who steal pets. You could be forgiven for imagining that the UK has few real problems to deal with.

British children are fatter, less active and shorter than previous generations. They go to schools with fraying budgets, and are less likely than their predecessors to find their education a means of upward social mobility. The jobs they are likely to get will be worse paid than equivalents in nations which used to be Britain’s peers. Their money will buy less. Their mental health will be worse. Food and energy will be more expensive and less stable in supply. Unless they inherit a house, they are unlikely to buy one until late middle age at the earliest; if they do it is likely to be poorly built and ill-adapted to Britain’s changing climate. Many of them will have almost no savings. If they become seriously ill, they may die or suffer life-altering changes while waiting for treatment. Many will find themselves caring for aged or sick relatives with little help, and no sense of future support as they grow older themselves. They will work longer for less. The world they grow into will be harder, less stable and more chaotic. Climate deaths, extreme weather events, extinctions and desperate migrations will dominate the headlines. War will be closer and more frequent.

Should they seek to change any of this, they will confront a political system rotted through by oligarchy; most of them will simply give up. A culture of distrust in our collective ability to achieve a broadly just – or merely functioning – society will breed an attitude of personal acquisitiveness and social suspicion. Everything will be understood to be a con or a grift, either explicit or concealed. Messiahs, political and otherwise, will do a roaring trade. Promises of national rebirth through fire, blood or purification will shine with allure. If nothing changes.

The intractable sense of exhaustion which attends British politics – not only in this election – is a signal of crisis in its institutions and ideologies. Electoral necessity requires dancing around this fact, although among some politicians the pretence has clearly congealed into delusion: Jeremy Hunt was recently caught on tape bemoaning our failure to appreciate the Conservatives’ ‘superb record since 2010’. Labour’s slippery manifesto occasionally acknowledges the scale of the problems, but then pretends it can deal with them by committing to spend about a weekend’s worth of GDP.

Yet unremitting gloom can be as stupid as witless optimism. Britain remains a wealthy (though stunningly unequal) country; one of its scandals is that so much talent, aptitude and ability is wasted. Were the next government to take its problems seriously, it could begin to solve them.

Holding patterns break. Systemic crises eventually require resolution rather than containment. The rise of Reform is not merely an artefact of media attention, but a mark of anti-systemic electoral impatience. The two weeks till polling day will see increasingly desperate bids from the Tories to Farage-curious voters. Yet Labour too will be chasing a similar bloc. The concern among Labour strategists is that the party has yet to convince uncertain voters who switched to the Tories in 2019. It will make for an airless two weeks.

After 4 July, the ambiguities on which Labour has traded through the campaign will press sharply for resolution. Tory strategists have begun warning of a ‘socialist supermajority’, a term with little real meaning in a political system which already accords the executive nearly untrammelled power. Conservative fears are misdirected. Lack of scrutiny may well be an issue, but it will have less to do with an enfeebled opposition than Starmer’s own high-handedness, Sue Gray’s intense dislike of Freedom of Information, and Labour governments’ authoritarian propensities. The Tories have been in power for so long they have forgotten how little ideological traction an opposition has. They are likely to spend the next few years not challenging Starmer’s government, but either fighting off or falling into the necrotising embrace of Nigel Farage.

The seats that Labour looks set to win in this election will represent an unstable coalition of interests, even if its new MPs are products of the apparatchik clone factory. It will not be able to retain all of them. Yet the composition of a new parliament could be uniquely advantageous to a government that discovered a sudden interest in broad, systemic change: it is possible that parties which have pushed for wealth taxes or increased social spending will have as many seats on the opposition benches as the Tories, if not more. The opportunity for social change on the scale of Roosevelt or Attlee would beckon, though it is hard to see the current Starmer team reaching to grasp it. There will be any number of immediate crises for them to handle: public sector pay awards (and likely strikes), the probable failure of some universities, another round of council bankruptcies, the inevitable NHS winter crisis. Those are only the predictable ones. Such a moment could be opportune for the British left, if it could crawl out of its grave.

For the moment, Labour is chasing those uncertain 2019 voters. It has begun wheeling out endorsements from figures it thinks will appeal to the hesitant. Prime among them was the former Tory donor and erstwhile Trussophile John Caudwell, the billionaire founder of Phones4U, who once declared he would flee the country to avoid being ‘raped’ – his term for taxed – by a Corbyn government. On Newsnight yesterday evening he extolled Starmer’s extirpation of the party’s left and replacement of them ‘with a set of values and principles in complete alignment with my views as a commercial capitalist’.

Maybe this is ruthless electoral strategy, stress after stress on the detoxified brand. But it augurs badly for the new social democratic settlement that Starmer’s media functionaries coo about, and even a party that’s socialist only in name ought to be embarrassed at provoking such enthusiasm in billionaires. More concerning is the shift it indicates in what politics is thought to be. Labour, falteringly and often ineptly, has typically held that ordinary people, banded together, might form a political counterweight to amassed wealth and power, and in doing so might even expand and extend democracy. In practice, this principle has always been in tension with a degree of acquiescence or compromise with British oligarchy. Yet a movement in Anglo-American popular thinking increasingly sees democracy as a sham, a matter of lining up behind one’s preferred great man, usually a billionaire of some stripe, and seeking patronage or kickbacks from him, while the dreary and taxing business of democracy is laid aside. It is a cynic’s poison to democratic politics, and a dead weight against change. It is no future worth having.


  • 19 June 2024 at 6:56pm
    CarpeDiem says:
    That's one dirgeful polemic, if I ever read one. Not that I disagree in any meaningful way with its prognoses.

  • 19 June 2024 at 7:13pm
    mecklenburgh says:
    The unrelenting anti-Israel bias of the LRB is making it difficult to remain a subscriber. This article is a good example.
    The saving of 4 hostages who were violently captured on Oct 7 (a Hamas war crime according to the Geneva Convention as well as a war crime that they have refused access from third parties like the Red Cross to monitor their health and living conditions, and a war crime that they are using them as trade bait instead of releasing them unconditionally. All actual clear war crimes linked to actual legal agreements rather than the vague, generalized accusations by propagandists that don’t refer to any legal agreement, but are pure politics. The LRB with their bias accepts all the propaganda uncritically, falling hook. Line and sinker even after many assertions have been proven to be lies, such as the hospital that according to the LRB’s sources Israeli bombs hit a hospital killing 500 and injuring 350. Turns out it was an Islamic missile that misfired and fell on the hospital’s parking lot, killing and injuring a handful of people. The numbers 500 dead and 350 injured remains in the Gaza Ministry of Health numbers.
    Does any of this lead to some caution about the credibility of their sources? Not one bit. Very unprofessional and a display of vulgar animus rather than professional reporting. Don’t be surprised when my renewal letter comes to me.

    • 19 June 2024 at 7:41pm
      candlewick says: @ mecklenburgh
      This is a curious comment to leave on a blogpost that makes no mention of Israel or Palestine, but I suppose these kinds of accusations rarely arise from an actual act of reading.

    • 19 June 2024 at 8:11pm
      steve kay says: @ mecklenburgh
      Oh dear. Do you live in North Durham so that you can vote for Luke Akehurst?

    • 20 June 2024 at 3:01am
      iago says: @ mecklenburgh
      i just reread butler's piece, and i still have no idea what your point here is.

    • 20 June 2024 at 11:03pm
      Graucho says: @ mecklenburgh
      I think the article said anti-systemic not anti-semitic
      I did search for Israel, Gaza and cease fire but couldn't find any of them in the article.
      the other piece that confused me was the bit that went
      Oct 7 (a Hamas ...
      as I couldn't find the closing )

    • 24 June 2024 at 11:44am
      Rory Allen says: @ mecklenburgh
      I can only conclude that 'Mecklenburgh' is a bot. Perhaps the word 'messiahs' triggered its automatic posting program? It's a stretch, I know, but that's the only rational explanation I can come up with.

    • 29 June 2024 at 7:56pm
      John Hammond says: @ candlewick
      Oh, spot on there, @candlewick.

  • 19 June 2024 at 8:01pm
    Einschlaf says:
    It's not New Order if it's not a new order, Tories nonwithstanding.

  • 20 June 2024 at 8:40am
    Camus says:
    It's the mysterious object in the corner of the room, covered up until the minister for taking the lid off and talking to Brussels actually does his job and amid screams and groans sets off to find the back door into a customs Union with the E.U.
    Everybody knows that the economy will start to grow when we have freedom of trade with our neighbours again, and the biggest mistake ever made by a sovereign government is changed to a sensible workable system. You know it makes sense.

  • 20 June 2024 at 8:48am
    J K says:
    'Labour, falteringly and often ineptly, has typically held that ordinary people, banded together, might form a political counterweight to amassed wealth and power, and in doing so might even expand and extend democracy.' - there really isn't any evidence that Starmer or anyone on his team believe in this is there? They seem rather more likely to despise ppl who hold to this idea.

  • 22 June 2024 at 12:24pm
    freshborn says:
    "It is an enormously consequential election."

    It's only a consequential election if the government elected do anything. Which they won't. This is probably one of the least consequential elections we'll ever see. The subsequent election, when the Tories defeat Starmer, will also be inconsequential. If Starmer rides his luck and wins that election by default like he will this time, that will be even less consequential.

    The irrelevance of these elections comes from the political stasis in this country. That stasis is consequential. The elections aren't.

    • 22 June 2024 at 12:34pm
      freshborn says: @ freshborn
      "... even a party that’s socialist only in name ought to be embarrassed at provoking such enthusiasm in billionaires."

      Surely a party that is "socialist only in name" is not socialist, so why should it be ashamed of having the rich on its side? It's the ageing middle-class socialists who should be ashamed of their absurd moribund perspective on Labour, speaking about it as though it's a left-wing party.

  • 24 June 2024 at 10:38am
    Harriet Guest says:
    Cant remember an election when there seemed so little possible hope and so much to fear.

  • 29 June 2024 at 8:02pm
    John Hammond says:
    The paragraph beginning "British children are fatter, less active and shorter than previous generations" reminds me of the conditions in the closing days of the Soviet Eastern Europe societies.
    This article largely accords with my own view of our current political situation which looks almost hopeless. Based on Starmer's history and his statements throughout the election campaign, and previously, I see little if any likelihood of much if any change in our political system over the period of his premiership. Oh woe is us!

  • 1 July 2024 at 2:23pm
    Richard L says:
    There appear to be parallels with the England football team - at least, at today's date. There are clear problems and there are ideas about how to fix them, yet any hope of progress is subsumed beneath managerial banality. There are positive words encompassing hope, with little realistic prospect of a positive outcome, and all is met with ennui by the population, who know that there is little reason to believe.

Read more