Dreams of Futures Past


We do not live in a Golden Age of political sloganeering. “Long term decisions for a brighter future”, the Conservatives’ current effort is dull, forgettable and a bit silly – who would proclaim their willingness to take short-term decisions for a bleaker future? The Lib Dems effort, “For a Fair Deal” probably sounded ok the first time it was used. By Harry Truman in 1946. Compared to these, Labour’s present mantra, “Give Britain its Future Back” is almost Shakespearean.

One of the things people truly hate is the notion that they have lost something. Great political slogans often play on this fact, blaming the other side for whatever has been lost, and promising to restore it. “Make America Great Again” achieves this in a way “Make America Great” never could. Though they would doubtless abjure the contrast, Labour is plucking at the same strings as everyone’s favourite orange-hued property developer and criminal defendant albeit in a way that appears to make rather less sense – the only way to lose your future (those events you have yet to experience) is to die. They may be increasingly cocky but they are not, as far as I can tell, claiming the power of resurrection just yet.

No, if they wish to give Britain its future back, they must have a narrower meaning in mind – Britain was on a path to a particular destination, it deviated from that course, and they will set it back on track. What was the future, but stopped being the future, will be the future once more. The arc of history has had a kink and they will, once more, bend it towards justice.

But what is this future, this promised land to which our reservation was temporarily lost?

They are planning to build 1.5mn homes over the parliament. Which sounds suspiciously similar to the 300,000 homes per annum announced in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. Perhaps it was the pandemic which bumped us off the true path, but does Labour really think that Johnsonian conservatism (without Johnson, to be sure) is the Platonic ideal of political organisation? Probably not.

The rupture must, therefore, have happened earlier.

David Lammy wants to “reset” Britain’s relationship with the E.U., so did things start to go awry at the referendum in 2016? Would, to paraphrase the villain in every Scooby Doo cartoon, everything have been alright had it not been for those pesky Leavers? Is the promised land a country like the E.U. without, at present, being in the E.U.?

Lammy’s is but one voice, but his vision of E.U. style governance without the E.U. seems remarkably attractive to the Labour mind. Rachel Reeves has talked of increasing the role of the OBR – unelected technocrats with a, let’s be fair, less than perfect track-record at predicting the future. Keir Starmer has talked of rolling out OBR-like bodies to monitor other departments. Because which country wouldn’t want to give unaccountable power to bodies of unelected social-science graduates? Lord Mandelson, former E.U. Commissioner, stalked the conference although keen to avoid the limelight (and possibly the sunlight). Mark Carney, the technocrats’ technocrat, was wheeled out to give his imprimatur to Ms Reeves’ bid for the Chancellorship. Labour, it is hard not to believe, wants to party like it’s 2015.

But Iain Martin, a far from radical columnist, tweeted after the Crazy Canuck’s intervention, “I had assumed that Labour had worked out that Carney’s legacy at the BoE was disastrous, but clearly not.” If anything, he was too kind. The performance of the OBR has been disastrous too. The performance of the E.U., at least by such niceties as economic growth, has been disastrous. The performance of technocrats across the world has been disastrous. The only people who seem unaware of this fact are the technocrats themselves.

The electorate is certainly aware of it. The Brexit vote was, in part, a response to a system which no longer worked for swathes of the electorate. People chose to take power away from those who were unelected, and vest it in those whom they could kick out for doing a poor job. As Dominic Cummings argued, Brexit was about improving society’s ability to correct errors.

It is easy, and probably correct, to argue that the Conservatives have squandered the opportunity of Brexit so far. In their defence, they have had a pandemic and a war to deal with, but they have made little progress on remaking the system, content, it seems to retreat to their comfort zone. There has been no attempt to build Hong Kong on Thames nor, as the Daily Mail wished and the Guardian feared, to pull up the drawbridge and cos-play the 1950’s.

But, on the evidence of the Conference, Labour have flunked the challenge too. They have reacted to a revolt against rule by middle class graduates by offering rule by middle class graduates, checked by other middle class graduates. The party of the workers still seems to believe that they need the protection and direction of their well-educated betters. To demands for radicalism, they offer managerialism. To a revolution, they offer a return to the status quo ante.

As an election strategy, this may work. The Conservatives’ soft underbelly is the Blue, not the Red Wall, voters in leafy commuter seats who wish to be ruled by people like them – graduates with conventional liberal views, middling incomes and a desire not to rock the boat (or crash the property market). But as a governing strategy?

It’s a bold man who does the same thing and expects a different result, particularly one who appears not to recognise the extent of the problems that approach has caused. Building 1.5mn homes is great. But the country needs 4mn (before you factor in immigration and trying to reduce that is nasty and wascist). An extra £1.1bn for the NHS is nice, but less than 1% of its annual spend. Putting VAT on private school fees is obviously a vile policy born of class envy and personal inadequacy, but even if the entire £1.5bn it might raise was put into the education system, it would increase funding per pupil by £159. At current salaries, that is 1/200th of a teacher.

If Brexit was a vote to change a system which no longer worked, none of these policies will even fix its most glaring failings. They are tokens, nothing more, to be offered along with the assurance that “top people” are in charge. They won’t make anything better, they will merely allow the failure to fester for a bit longer as, like the Conservatives, Labour retreats into its comfort zone, “like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

If the Conservative conference resembled the last days in the Berlin Bunker, gloomy staffers awaiting the end while the principals put their faith in armies (or railway lines) which did not exist, Labour brings to mind another failed European political experiment, the Bourbons. For, like them, Keir Starmer and co. have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.