In this article I explain why Boris Johnson is safe while Keir Starmer is the Labour leader. I will argue that getting the Tories out of power is a matter of sequencing and I will reveal what that sequence is.

The background

The Labour leader Keir Starmer could not have been handed a better opportunity to become prime minister. He faces an intellectually exhausted and morally bankrupt Tory government that has been in power for over a decade and which seems more concerned about saving itself than governing the country. 

Bereft of new ideas, the government is aimlessly staggering forward like an unconscious zombie. That is not quite true, it isn’t entirely mindless. There is one dominating thought, a core belief which binds the Tories and propels them forward: neoliberalism. The neoliberal policies of privatisation, austerity and deregulation have an almost religious significance to Tories. First introduced by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the Tories have remained true believers of the faith. They are zealous believers, some would say fanatics.

Neoliberalism is the Tory party’s orthodoxy and therefore its justification for everything it has done and everything it is going to do. Without neoliberalism the Tories have no justification and therefore no defence for what they have done to the UK since 1979.

We have now tested neoliberal economic policy with both Tory and New Labour governments for forty continuous years. Here are the results.

The results of the neoliberal experiment

Poverty, inequality and debt have all increased over the last 40 years. Mortality rates are up, life expectancy is down and wages have remained stagnant while asset and equity prices have exponentially increased. Tory austerity caused over 200,000 avoidable deaths between 2015-2020 alone. Women, children, disabled people and people on low incomes have been worst affected. 14 million people in the UK live in poverty and the number of foodbanks and homeless people is at record levels. Those are the results. 

Those devastating consequences are why Jeremy Corbyn argued against austerity when he was Labour leader. His intervention was important and necessary because the major parties had formed a consensus on austerity, they all supported it. Corbyn broke with that consensus and by doing so caused significant political change in the UK.

I know that is a big claim to make but fortunately for me it is an easy one to prove. Here is the evidence: the government is spending more than any government since 1947 and has just announced a windfall tax, a policy proposed by Corbyn in Labour’s 2019 manifesto.

Those facts suggest Jeremy Corbyn didn’t just argue against austerity, they strongly suggest he won the argument against one of the three pillars of neoliberalism. By winning the argument Corbyn fundamentally changed the accepted wisdom of British politics. Corbyn defeated the argument for austerity. That is his true legacy.

I can hear you say that is all very well and fairly interesting but you promised to tell us about the sequence that will get the Tories out of power. What has all this stuff about neoliberalism got to do with Boris Johnson being safe while Starmer is Labour leader? It is relevant because it is one of the two key reasons Johnson is safe. I appreciate your patience, dear reader, and will now get straight to the point.

The first key reason why Johnson is safe while Starmer is Labour leader

Starmer is relying on Labour leave voters who voted Tory to get Brexit implemented to naturally return to the party after Brexit settles down. There is a flaw in that assumption. Brexit isn’t settling down and it is unlikely to for as long as the person who tried to stop Brexit is the leader of the Labour Party. 

Johnson is safe while Starmer is Labour leader for two key reasons. The first is because Starmer tried to stop Brexit. He ignored the wishes of the 65% of constituencies which voted leave. Leave voters who fought hard for their victory will not be inclined to vote for the person who tried to stop Brexit and whose support base is made up largely of EU supporters who want the UK to rejoin the EU. The probability of leave voters voting Labour is significantly diminished by Keir Starmer being Labour leader. Having Mr Stop Brexit as leader puts off leave voters who might otherwise have voted Labour. 

If I am right that Starmer is an electoral liability then it should be born out by Labour's election results, so let’s look at the numbers. 

Election results

Since Starmer became leader the Labour vote has collapsed at every single by-election Labour has stood in except for one. Labour lost 327 council seats and 8 councils at the 2021 local elections and Starmer didn’t perform as well at the 2022 elections as Corbyn did at the 2018 local elections. Corbyn’s approval rating was also higher than Starmer’s at this point in his leadership.

Some exceptionally bad election results stand out. Starmer holds the record for achieving the worst ever by-election result in the history of the Labour Party. Labour won just 1.6% of the vote at the Chesham and Amersham by-election and lost its deposit. 

Starmer also lost Hartlepool, a seat Corbyn had held twice when he was leader and which Labour had held since 1974. Another notable defeat was Labour losing its majority on Durham County Council, a council the party had controlled for a hundred years.

A leader who achieves those kind of results is probably not on their way to Downing Street, it is far more likely that they are on their way to the Job Centre. 

Starmer’s supporters will counterargue that Labour is ahead in the polls. True enough, but a rather feeble truth. Being just 3-6 points ahead of arguably the worst Tory government in modern times when the media has given Labour a fairly easy ride is not something to crow about. In 2017 Labour were 8 points ahead on 45% and Tony Blair said that Labour should have been 15-20 points ahead. Yet today, when Labour is on 36%, he says Starmer is doing a good job. The UK needs many things at the moment but one thing it does not need is any more Blairite spin. 

The second key reason why Johnson is safe

Some people might argue that the fact Starmer tried to stop Brexit is not in itself enough to guarantee Johnson’s safety. Perhaps, but combined with the second key reason it is more than enough. The second key reason is that  Starmer is not offering voters any real alternative to the Tories. He is only offering to manage neoliberalism better. Slightly less people will die, a few less will be homeless and go hungry but nothing would fundamentally change to address the causes of the problems. He offers adjustments to what already exists, he isn’t offering anything new to the Tories. It is a timid and weak offer, especially from a Labour leader. 

His offer to voters is so weak it allows Boris Johnson to outbid him while still keeping his own Tory MPs in line. The most recent example of this happening was with the windfall tax on energy companies. Labour proposed a means tested method of distribution which would pay people on low incomes less than the Tories have offered. How on earth did Labour find itself in the position of being outflanked from the left by the Tories?

Keir Starmer keeps having these type of political problems because he accepts the neoliberal consensus. As a result, he formulates policies in a way that will not challenge the status quo. That is why his policies are so weak and ineffectual. Corbyn won the argument against austerity but Starmer chose not to exploit that victory. He didn’t press home the attack on neoliberalism, he didn’t press home the advantage. Quite the opposite, by being pro-privatisation and anti-nationalisation, Starmer is defending neoliberalism.

The sequence

At the beginning of the article I promised to reveal the sequence Labour will need to follow to get the Tories out. I will make good on that promise now. To defeat the Tories Labour will need to replace Keir Starmer with a leader who did not try to stop Brexit and who will make a bold offer to voters similar to the offers Labour made at the 2017 and 2019 general elections. It is a simple sequence and in my view the only path to power for the Labour Party.

The End

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