Nick Cosburn – Predicting a Labour government

It’s not so difficult to predict how the Labour party in the UK will govern in power.

Nick Cosburn is a parliamentary researcher based in London.

Cross-posted from Red Pepper

A year before Labour’s defeat in the 2019 general election, Keir Starmer was presented with a plan outlining a clear route to No 10 by the little-known think-tank, Labour Together. Formed in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015, it aimed to anchor the party’s centrist wing. Its former director, Morgan McSweeney, masterminded Starmer’s steps to power.

McSweeney joined the party in 2001 as an intern, moving up the ranks of Labour’s London organisation, working on campaigns for future Labour Together founders Jon Cruddas and Steve Reed and for future general secretary David Evans. He joined Labour Together in 2017, determining that their chosen candidate would have to appeal to the soft left, so-called ‘idealists’ from Corbyn’s supporter base.

Starmer was identified to do that job. The appeal to Corbyn supporters was crafted in his radical ‘ten pledges’, which won over many members who had backed the former leader. Once Starmer’s leadership was secured, McSweeney became his chief of staff. Immediately, he outlined three concise steps to No 10: nullifying the left’s power in Labour, becoming an ‘effective’ opposition in parliament, and outflanking the Tories on crime, defence and the economy.

These have since been carried out methodically, culminating in the unveiling of the ‘five missions for a better Britain’ in July. The ‘Take Back our Streets’ campaign, an ‘unwavering’ commitment to NATO and an economic pledge to achieve the highest growth in the G7 all signal the result of the final step to No 10.

Labour Together will play a key role in setting Labour’s agenda. Key think-tank figures, including Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting and Shabana Mahmood, occupy top positions in Labour’s shadow cabinet, while its allies, such as Deborah Mattinson and Stuart Ingham, have key roles in the leader’s office. Labour Together has shaped Labour’s hierarchy and its policy.

Shifting agendas

Nationalisation of public services, abolishing tuition fees and defence of freedom of movement were all on the agenda just four years ago. Now the ‘five missions’ outline a position that could come from an entirely different party.

On housebuilding, Labour wants to challenge planning laws and there has been talk of relaxing restrictions on constructions on the green belt. On energy, it plans to launch GB Energy, a publicly owned energy company designed to invest jointly in ventures with the private sector. Instead of nationalisation, which would allow a move towards conscious economic planning, GB Energy will be operating purely on a commercial basis.

These managerial departures from Conservative policy are linked by a commitment to harness the power of the state to support private enterprise and capital. Labour’s opposition to the Conservatives does not stem from a belief that there is an imbalance between capital and labour, but rather that the Tories are doing capitalism wrong.

Labour Together rightly points out, ‘Labour’s willingness to use the state as a catalytic investor, leading so that private sector investors can follow, is a genuine dividing line between the two major parties.’ This is what underlines contemporary Labourism: state intervention that will not challenge the balance of class power.

On foreign policy, the Labour leadership’s position is clear. Its responses to the war in Ukraine and the invasion of Gaza showed an unshakeable commitment to NATO and policy in lockstep with the United States. While this has acted as an effective means of rooting out dissenting voices on the left – or ‘shaking off the fleas’, as one senior Labour source put it – it also comes from a place of sincere conviction. Both Starmer and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy are self-proclaimed ‘Atlanticists’ in the tradition of Tony Blair.

One certainty will be a closer relationship with the EU on matters of security and trade, anticipating the review of the UK-EU trade deal next year. As such it is likely that returning to a 0.7 per cent aid budget will be made dependent on a conservative approach to spending and will be implemented with the aim of encouraging private investment rather than crisis aid.

A Labour government will likely face growing crises abroad, from climate to the rise of multipolar international powers. While it will stick to Biden’s policies like glue, the possibility of a Trump administration from 2025 will force Labour to venture into unfamiliar territory on foreign policy: originality.

Inevitable pitfalls

Decimated public services, increasing inequality and climate breakdown cannot be wished away with private investment and a magical AI wand. Cruddas, co-founder of Labour Together, argued in January that Starmer’s ‘approach to economics does not appear to be grounded in any specific theoretical understanding of inequality, material justice and welfare distribution’. Cruddas is correct: because of inherent flaws in its current logic, Labour will inevitably fail in addressing the economic crisis.

From Germany to the US, governments are seeing their support collapse because of their inability to address the crises of the day, allowing the far right to prosper in the political vacuum. Just as before, a pro-business, pro-state progressivist government will likely fail – we have seen it across the world and experienced it ourselves in Britain from 1997-2010. It is the job of the left to present its alternative.

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