There’s no through line to this era of Conservatism. It unfolds randomly like prog rock, ear-bleeding thrash straight after a flute solo. First, their only agenda was to reduce the deficit, then they were all about levelling up, now they want to increase the deficit and stop levelling up, and what they say doesn’t really matter, because it doesn’t happen anyway. Very often they deliver the exact opposite, and you have to conclude that the real agenda was to sever the links between language and meaning, cause and effect, promise and outcome.
What they cannot escape, however, is the passage of time. Twelve years have now gone by, and it would be time-consuming and complicatedly disrespectful to recap how much hardship, how much lasting damage they have caused. They can and will start culture wars to plug the rhetorical gaps, but on the material realities facing most Britons, they have only one option: a narrative of impotence. The UK is poorer because the good times couldn’t last for ever; energy is more expensive because of unavoidable exogenous shocks; inflation is high because of energy; interest rates are high because of inflation; look over there, Germany is having a right time of it too. We’re in decline because so is the world. Any line other than this would require them to take some responsibility, which would interrupt their messaging that they “got the big calls right”.
Labour needs to focus on how not to get pulled into the vortex. It is fabulously bad at avoiding other people’s narratives. The internal conversations ahead of its conference next week are about whether to launch with the national anthem – the reasoning being that royalism is at an all time high and now is the perfect time to draw in those elusive socially conservative, economically socialist voters without whom all hope is lost. It is a damn fool idea, playing God Save the King, an open invitation to hecklers which will then become the story. If no one heckles, that too will be a story. (“Call yourselves the party of equality? You can’t even muster the energy to object to your aristocratic overlords.”)
The bigger problem, though, is that they’re always putting out yesterday’s fires, dealing with the concerns of last year’s focus groups. This drags them irresistibly into the Tory narrative, that we’re mired in a broken system. To make matters worse, this decline narrative is the left’s comfort zone, and the obvious alternative – vague, high-minded visions of a brighter, better future – won’t cut it, having been tainted by the boosterish drivel of the departing Boris Johnson.
To escape the mire of decline, they first have to make the coherent case linking Conservative decisions, past and present, to current conditions. Ambulances take hours to arrive because of policy; schools are facing bankruptcy, parents are going hungry to feed their children, social care is on its knees, maternity services are unsafe – all the decay you can see is a direct consequence of governmental choices. This is uncomfortable for Keir Starmer, who styles himself as a problem solver, a practical politician; choosing an enemy and hammering that home seems both too binary and too rhetorical to someone who’d rather concentrate on outcomes than theories. But it’s fundamental, if we want to regain any sense of agency and control, to insist on this. What we’re facing this autumn is not a “perfect storm”, because it’s not an act of God; it’s much more workmanlike, an act of Conservative governments, and only by constantly reinforcing that can you hope to persuade anyone that life under a different government would be better.
They also have to reject the prevailing idea that external factors will simply resolve over time, and there’s nothing to do about the short-term pain except grin and bear it. The idea that Vladimir Putin, at some indeterminate point in the sunlit future, will halt his war and reopen his gas pipelines, bringing energy prices back down and a return to normality, has a Johnson-esque optimism (vague, a bit shaky), but more importantly, misses an opportunity. There has never been a better time to move decisively away from fossil fuels and towards renewables; there has never been a better time for green investment than when carbon has priced itself out of the market; there has never been a riper time to make the argument that climate must take priority; there has never been a more stagnant time, waiting for a second Industrial Revolution.
Finally, they need to drop the hand-wringing: “How could all these individual privations happen, in the sixth largest economy in the world?” This is a constant mantra in Labour circles, they’ve been saying it since the UK was the world’s fourth largest economy, and it’s meaningless. There is no point measuring your GDP relative to other nations’ if you’re not asking who’s got the money and what they’re spending it on. The wider case is that the putative “normal” UK that the new prime minister hopes to get us back to was itself unequal to the point of widespread hardship and economic self-sabotage. A Labour government should not strive to take us back to 2015, when the Conservatives had only done half their damage and there were only half as many food banks. It should not be chasing growth just for a seat at the world’s big-economy table. It needs new metaphors, new hymns; God might save the King, but only we can save ourselves.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist