Labour’s Victory: Ruthless Caution, Strategic Ambiguity, and the Spectre of the Far Right


Labour’s Victory: Ruthless Caution, Strategic Ambiguity, and the Spectre of the Far Right

Dr Demetris Tillyris offers his reflections on Labour’s victory.

Labour’s enduring poll lead might make the outcome of the General Election appear unsurprising. Yet, the result of the election is seismic for a variety of reasons. The Conservative party suffered a historic defeat, with a number of prominent Conservative MPs losing their seats. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats achieved their best result in a century, ReformUK were supported by 15 per cent of the electorate, and the SNP vote collapsed. More importantly, the Labour Party have won the election with a 1997-style landslide, with a majority of 172.

But, once the Labour party’s celebrations start to fade away, Keir Starmer and his team will be confronted with a momentous task. Such a task would involve (amongst other things) restoring faith in politics, and public institutions; reviving public services and the economy; renegotiating Brexit; tackling the deep-seated issues of child poverty, homelessness, higher education funding, social care, local government finances, pensions, corruption, migration, and environmental degradation; and, more generally, injecting a sense of collective purpose and hope in a country mired in cynicism, and disillusionment.

Such challenges need not be unique, but the way in which the Labour party conducted its campaign renders its endeavour to address these challenges particularly onerous and pressing. For, as I have argued elsewhere, the practices and rituals of successful campaigning often collide with, and compromise, the practices and demands of effective governance.  

The Labour party’s campaign was predicated on a strategy of ruthless caution and strategic ambiguity. On the one hand, since assuming the leadership of the party, Keir Starmer embarked on a mission to reinvent Labour by denying political ammunition to his opponents and the right-wing media – by purging away anything (and, indeed, anyone), who might hinder its chances of electoral success, and by limiting the occurrence of any potential Bacon Sandwich-style gaffes which might prove politically costly. On the other hand, Starmer and his strategists sought to carve an image of political and economic responsibility, and of moral seriousness and integrity. Though the party’s manifesto is not as thin as is often thought, it lacked a transformative vision. ‘Change’ – the party’s campaign slogan – aside, the strategy employed was one of evasion; it primarily relied on: i) reminding the public of the Conservative’s record in government; ii) distancing themselves from previous iterations of Labour, widely seen as fiscally irresponsible, and heavily reliant on aggressive tax increases, and ‘magic money trees’; and iii) embracing the Napoleonic motto of ‘never interrupting your enemy, when he is making a mistake’, relying on public outrage against a range of Tory fiascos and transgressions during the campaign – for instance, Rishi Sunak’s decision to leave D-Day commemorations early, and the more recent betting scandals.

To be sure, the strategy was successful; it led to the re-orientation of the Labour party to the centre, and the creation of an incredibly broad umbrella – one which encompasses progressives, liberals, and more traditional conservatives (and, at some point, even the right wing, hard Brexit supporter and former Conservative MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke). Yet, it also poses a range of significant challenges. Firstly, according to Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, even if one welcomes the focus on growth and stability:

“[G]rowth would take time to arrive, and its scale is uncertain. The difficult choices for the coming Parliament will still be there … delivering genuine change will almost certainly also require putting actual resources on the table. And Labour’s manifesto offers no indication that there is a plan for where the money would come from to finance this.”

Secondly, one might well argue that merely focusing on “more growth” is misguided, because – as a number of studies have shown – the benefits do not tend to trickle down effectively to large parts of society. If Labour is serious about changing Britain, given the state of the public purse and public services, there appear to be no cheap solutions that avoid increases in taxation and spending.

The trouble, then, is that, at best, the simple plan for ‘growth’ would require time to materialise, even if successful; at worst, it might be incomplete and vacuous. But neither time nor patience are commodities that Starmer’s government can afford.

Hence the third challenge facing the incoming government. What lies underneath Starmer’s umbrella, united under the aegis of the party’s campaign strategy of ruthless caution and strategic ambiguity, is not a coalition of hope – a collective affirmation of Labour’s plans for the country’s future – but, rather, a coalition of despair – a collective rejection of successive conservative Governments of the past. This much is also evident in the party’s relatively low vote share and, the rather striking fact that, for an incoming PM, Starmer has uncharacteristically low approval ratings.

The support granted to the Labour Party therefore appears to be tentative and fragile. If change does not take place quickly, voters – especially those struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, those dismayed by the state of public services, and those who are increasingly impatient with the intricacies of ‘politics as usual’ –, might feel that they have been left behind (again); and, they might be tempted to withdraw their support, and find refuge to a galvanised far right.

That those who will welcome the politically homeless with open arms might well be the architects of some of the very problems with which the country is faced today, matters little. Populist politics has never traded in logic. Its only logic, as this election (amongst others) reveals, is that, in societies characterised by increasing despair, populism lurks in the background, ready to enamour the disillusioned with simple solutions to complex problems – utopian images of a prosperous future, based on romantic, and hollow visions of the past.

Demetris Tillyris is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at CCCU. He specialises in Contemporary Political Philosophy and the History of Political Thought. Specifically, his research focuses on ethical questions and problems in contemporary public life. He welcomes applications for PhD supervision on these topics.

This blog first appeared on CCCU Expert Comment on Friday 5 July.

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