Lessons for the Left from the United Kingdom
Keir Starmer is deftly exploiting Boris Johnson’s decline.
When Boris Johnson won the 2019 general election, it seemed that his victory signaled a realignment in British politics that was a precursor for things to come across the world. It was a realignment based on the divide between democratic and technocratic politics, in which the left was punished by voters for upholding cultural values for which they could not secure democratic consent, while conservative opportunists stepped in to occupy the vacant political ground.
But given developments in Britain over the past few months, I now think that Johnson’s governmental woes—and the successful tactics of the Labour opposition—are a clue to an alternative trajectory for Western democratic politics. Left-wing parties can successfully overcome the populist right if they shift to the middle ground on culture, while ruthlessly cultivating a reputation for economic competence.
I’m probably not the first person to tell you that Prime Minister Johnson is in a precarious situation. He’s spent the last few months embroiled in a controversy dubbed “partygate”: members of his staff were throwing boozy parties in Downing Street while COVID rules meant that ordinary citizens weren’t allowed to go and visit dying family members in hospital. In a turn of events that surprised exactly nobody, it came to light that Johnson had been at numerous parties, a fact confirmed by the release of a report last week into the gatherings. It is a classic case of political hypocrisy, a trait for which the British have a particular distaste. While Johnson was not forced to resign, his polling numbers plummeted in the wake of the crisis. They have not recovered.
In the midst of his current woes, it is easy to forget that, until this year, Johnson was a very popular and successful leader. His electoral success was down to three things: he was a Brexiteer who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU; he was to the center right on cultural issues; and he was to the center left on the economy. The many voters who voted Conservative for the first time in the 2019 election were patriotic, wary of the EU, and even more wary of people who “talk down” British history. However, they were less traditionally right-wing when it came to the state's role in society, perfectly willing to see a substantial increase in government spending if it meant that their living standards would improve.
An awful lot of credit was given to Johnson’s personal charm in appealing to these voters. But while he can certainly be charming on occasion, he scarcely exhibited this in the run-up to the election (he spent eighty percent of the campaign locked away in his house, refusing to conduct any interviews.) Instead, in order to gain victory, Johnson simply had to use the right messaging: this meant repeating the words “Get Brexit Done,” while trying his best not to make anyone angry. This tactic was effective because, by that stage, the question of whether or not you wanted to follow through on the result of the 2016 referendum was a cultural issue as much as it was a political and economic one. You can call this populist maneuvering, but you can also call it poor liberal politicking: the longer “Remainer” politicians stood in the way of Brexit after the vote had happened, the more “getting Brexit done” turned it into a question of cultural identity, which benefited the Conservatives.
Once Brexit was safely underway, Johnson successfully shifted the political battleground towards economics—and in this war, there was scarcely anything to separate him from the opposition. He abandoned an expected cut in corporation tax, raised the minimum wage, and announced the biggest increase in public spending in over fifteen years. His favorite thing to talk about was the National Health Service, the single-payer healthcare system founded in 1948.
In response to this wave of expansive economic policies, the opposition Labour party were stuck: on the economy, all they could really say was, essentially, “we agree with what the Conservatives are doing; but those are our policies, and we’re going to go even further.” It’s dubious whether many people actually wanted to go much further left on the economy—and they certainly didn’t care who had the idea for the policies in the first place.
Meanwhile, Johnson maintained his center-right position on cultural issues, continuing his war on “woke.” He berated protestors who tried to tear down statues of Winston Churchill, and appointed Priti Patel, a notorious figure in the culture wars, as his interior minister. She went on to condemn the English national soccer team for taking the knee before games.
Again, Johnson was greatly aided by the fact that the Labour party were in tatters, with institutional anti-Semitism, political infighting, and a new leader in Keir Starmer who was still finding his feet. The party was still haunted by the legacy of Starmer’s far-left predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, whose anti-West foreign policy, formed over decades of activism, struck the public as deeply anti-patriotic—never more so than when he expressed skepticism that the Kremlin was responsible for the poisoning of three British citizens in 2018.
But in 2020, Starmer began to take a different tack. He threw Corbyn out of the party and signaled a fresh start. He took a stronger stand on law and order, arguing that it was “completely wrong” for Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol to pull down a statue of a slave trader without any form of legal process and dump it in the harbor. He made a series of speeches about the importance of patriotism, and, in a move that one-upped Johnson, made a strong defense of the union of England with the other constituent nations of the UK.
Under Starmer, the Labour party’s pitch now seems to be: “Look, we can do all of these things that this Conservative government says it wants to do; but we can do them more competently, more responsibly, and you won't have to put up with someone as chaotic and untrustworthy as Johnson as prime minister.”
And, all of the sudden, the tide changed. Labour are consistently polling well above the Conservatives for the first time since 2015. As the Conservatives continue to implode—and Johnson, a habitual liar, continues to make the same mistakes he’s made throughout his career—Starmer only stands to gain.
Even then, it is a long way from this point to Labour winning a majority. This is largely because of their collapse in Scotland over the last ten years, and the rise of the Scottish National Party, who hold almost every parliamentary seat in Scotland, including many that Labour used to count on winning. But regardless, Labour’s drastic change in fortunes suggests a blueprint that a number of left and liberal parties could follow.
The message is clear: right-wing parties are successfully moving to the left on economics, and this means that left-wing parties need to cede some ground on cultural issues where their stances are both unpopular and morally dubious (without emulating the bigotry and inflammatory rhetoric of Trumpist politicians.) If they make sure that they do not shoot themselves in the foot by taking positions nobody agrees with on matters of immigration and identity, the left can win on competence. If they don’t, they will make it easy for charismatic conservatives to seize the open political ground. Joe Biden ought to be watching events in Britain closely.
Sahil Handa is a contributing editor at Persuasion.