Keir Starmer’s Labor party is on the brink of a cataclysmic split
You’d never know it from all the confiscated animosity and exaggerated conflagration that drives media coverage, but the two Tory leadership contenders agree on almost everything. In fact, given the differences in their personal histories and family traditions, they are quite extraordinarily similar in their social attitudes, moral values and political beliefs – and that, it should be noted, is a credit to this country. .
If a white British girl growing up in the north of England and being educated in a state general ends up adhering to the same societal principles and goals as the son of Asian immigrants who was educated in an elite state school, we have to assume that Britain has a capacity to welcome and unite different types of people in a quite exceptional way. The disagreement between them that has swept the board into the public eye is not trivial – although it is likely to be exaggerated beyond its real value – but it is essentially strategic.
Is it more important to tackle rising inflation, which would mean not cutting taxes immediately, or is the looming threat of recession a greater danger, which makes cutting taxes for encouraging growth the first priority? It is a question of economic prognosis and not of political ideology. This is a dispute over how to achieve the ultimate goal that both teams wholeheartedly endorse: a country in which people can achieve self-determination as free individuals, in which families can to be secure and to achieve prosperity in exchange for the right thing to do, and in which entrepreneurs and innovators can flourish.
Listening to the statements of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, even in their most combative moments, you can hear the unanimity of these messages over and over again. So I repeat: there is no dispute here about the type of society – or the type of economy – that these candidates and their supporters advocate. Everyone on both sides believes in free markets and, at least in principle, they all have a pretty clear understanding of the relationship between economic freedom and moral responsibility.
It is true that, in the immediate post-pandemic period, there has been a revival of collectivist sentiment similar to the post-war mood that produced the welfare state and (not so sentimentally revered) the pursuit of the rationing for a decade. This mood could be extended by the coming cost of living crisis – which may or may not live up to expectations.
This is probably the tactical assumption of those who now support the Brownian model of raising taxes and then distributing benefits to those the state deems worthy of receiving. It is a redistribution of wealth that would normally be unacceptable to both sides but which can be justified in an emergency. (The obvious criticism being that it prolongs inequality by creating poverty traps and permanent dependency on benefits.)
Alternatively, we can loosen the grip of state regulation and maximize the possibility of creating real wealth. It is the debate within the Conservative Party that crystallized in a particularly useful way during this leadership campaign. It’s not about where we end up but how we get there.
It is not at all like – in substance or intensity – the tumultuous disagreement within the Labor Party, whose factions remain hopelessly divided over what their party is for and what kind of social order it should promote. In fact, disagreement is far too soft a word. It is a schism: a theological chasm that is irreconcilable in practical terms because it is not a practical issue but a doctrinal issue.
There is no objective test that can decide whether the solutions offered by the left of the party are superior to those presented by its centre-right. This controversy cannot be settled by empirical evidence – because there is no agreement on what should be achieved. The case of the left values class loyalty over individual aspirations, equality of outcome over meritocracy, and command economy measures over free markets.
Its representatives within the labor movement and the Corbynite entryists who, for a moment at least, defeated Blair’s New Labor, are making hay right now. Using the crisis in the cost of living and the shocking decline of public services as levers, they reinvent nationalization as a post-modern solution to the problems of a generation too young to remember what nationalized industries really looked like. Let those of us who are old enough repeat the lesson. If you’re a rail passenger exasperated by frequent interruptions to your service—probably caused by strikes by rail workers who earn more than you—try to imagine what a national rail system was like at the mercy of national unions.
At the time, there was no need for Aslef or the RMT to call separate strike votes at a myriad of different franchise businesses. There was only one employer – the much hated British Rail – and a single national ballot could shut down the country’s entire rail network and the many sectors of the economy that depended on it. (This is the historical reason why so much freight transport has shifted to road delivery by dedicated “logistics” trucks.)
Nationalized industries are a gift to power-hungry union bosses. But not, ironically, for their ordinary members: the breakup of the old state monopoly actually improved the salaries of train drivers who could now choose between competing offers from different franchises. Local commuter rail lines have often suffered severe driver shortages as they have lost out to high-paying intercity service.
But power is what it’s all about. For the Labor left, which believes it has Sir Keir Starmer on the run, it’s death. The old goals never died: class solidarity, which means union power, and state ownership of the means of production, which means the consumer gets what the state decides he deserves. It’s a truly cataclysmic split, and he’s just waiting for Sir Keir to return from his vacation.