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Starmer’s 8th July problem

With less than two weeks to go, the only question that remains to be answered is just how bad the Tories’ defeat is going to be.  Because there is no sign of the mythical narrowing of the gap between Labour and the Tories.  Indeed, with the arrival of Reform UK’s Nigel Farage, Tory fortunes have gone from bad to worse – with a couple of polls showing Reform UK ahead of the Tories (although the UK’s broken electoral system means that the best outcome for Reform will be to win perhaps five of the 650 seats being contested).  Labour’s share of the vote, meanwhile, is about the same as it was in June 2017, when they narrowly lost to Theresa May’s Tories (although this time, it will be enough to deliver them a supermajority of the seats). 

Perhaps the only myth that this election will bolster is the one that holds that “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.”  And there is more than a suspicion, given the atrociously incompetent Tory campaign, that Rishi Sunak’s team may be deliberately throwing this one.  Certainly, the panicked calling of the election – after giving everyone (including his own ministers and party workers) every indication that the election would be in November – suggested that Team Sunak had received some insider bad news that had made this election the fabled “good election to lose.”

It is, of course, possible that the entire global economy may be about to experience another 2008-style crash – although probably an order of magnitude greater – in which systems that were too big to fail last time around, prove to be too big to save this time.  And there are many black swans circling overhead – the slowdown in China, the end of the petrodollar system, the growth of the BRICS trading bloc, and the empire’s “forever wars,” to name just a few.  Were such a crisis to emerge, moreover, the UK is in a particularly unprepared state to weather the storm.  Indeed, even if the economy continued on its current track without a global crisis, the UK economy is in such a perilous state that the experience may be little different.  And that, of course, is extremely bad news for any incoming government.

While those looking solely at the psephology of the UK election have drawn comparisons with the arrival of Blair’s New Labour government in 1997, the economics are diametrically opposite.  After their defeat in 1997, Tory elder Kenneth Clarke complained that Blair was inheriting a booming economy which the Tories had spent five years building.  This was partially true.  The loss of oil and gas revenues following the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 had weakened the currency, setting up the conditions for the “Black Wednesday” crisis at the very beginning of John Major’s government.  But by 1995, the oil and gas were back in full flow, and the revenues from them had underpinned the beginning of the 1995-2005 debt-based boom… a boom which Blair inherited.

Starmer, in contrast, will be arriving in 10 Downing Street in the midst of a still unresolved economic downturn, following a massive hit to the standard of living of all but the very richest people in the UK.  Moreover, the long-term Tory austerity since 2010 has left the UK’s utilities and critical infrastructure broken beyond repair – for the first time since the nineteenth century, the windows of the Palace of Westminster will have to be closed in summer because of the smell of the shit clogging up the River Thames which flows alongside… something, at least, which will remind the gobshites inside about just how broken everything in Britain is just now.

I don’t use the term “gobshites” lightly in this instance.  There was a time when people from all walks of life were elected to parliament.  Prior to Thatcher’s neoliberal vandalism, it was common for MPs to have had direct experience of working on the shop floor or running businesses and meeting wage bills.  But gradually, the routes into parliament have closed down, even as being an MP has become a quasi-profession in its own right.  So that today, the majority of MPs are political specialists whose pre-election careers began with the right kind of degree – such as Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford – before working as a special advisor or party worker, fighting the inevitable no-hope seat, and finally catching the leader’s eye and being parachuted into a safe seat (often against the wishes of local party members).

It is this, which will be Keir Starmer’s first, 8 July, crisis.  The election itself will take place between 7.00am and 10.00pm on Thursday 4 July.  Votes will begin to be counted immediately after the polls close, with an informal competition between a handful of high-density urban seats to see which will be the first to declare a result.  We will get an indication of who has won, and on what scale, from the exit polls which will be announced at 10.00pm, but this prediction will be gradually revised through the early hours of Friday 5 July.  And while some results will continue to trickle in through the day, the end result will likely be settled by 6.00am.

Traditionally, the change of government is done at speed.  Because we are going to see a change of government, the removal vans will be in Downing Street the moment the incumbent’s loss is assured.  So that, by Friday morning, Keir Starmer will be able to move in – probably giving a victory speech of sorts to the assembled establishment media hacks.  After this, having been up all night, he will most likely sleep (although party spokespeople will claim he is working on who to appoint to the government – something which will have actually been pencilled in before the voting began).  Either way, in the course of the weekend – 6 and 7 July – a parade of MPs will enter 10 Downing Street to be offered various ministerial positions.  At least some of these will keep the role they had in the shadow cabinet – it is highly unlikely, for example, that Rachel Reeves will not take over as Chancellor, and Yvette Cooper – one of the few Labour MPs to have been a minister in the last Labour government – is almost certain to become Home Secretary.  Beyond these though, Starmer is free to move people around, and so the final shape of the cabinet and the wider government will only emerge gradually over the weekend.

In a sane world, the prime minister would be able to bring in experts from outside parliament to either take over or at least support key ministries such as energy, health, and transport.  But the British system requires that secretaries of state and ministers must be drawn from sitting MPs.  And, as we have seen, this means that on 8 July – the first day of real work for the new government – a cabinet of clueless professional gobshites will sit around the cabinet table for the first time to begin managing the affairs of state… which might not have been such an issue if Starmer was inheriting the kind of economic stability enjoyed by Blair.  But he isn’t – and the dire state of the UK means that the new Starmer government will be in crisis mode from day-one.

Worse still, whereas Blair inherited the last gasp of a functioning civil service – his senior civil servants had begun their careers overseeing Britain’s booming post-war economy, within departments which still valued expertise – Starmer will have to manage a civil service whose career structure actively discourages expertise by rewarding those who flit from department to department year-by-year… which is another reason, of course, why the wider UK is in a worse state than every developed economy save, perhaps, for Japan.

In any case, over the last five years we have witnessed how a huge government majority can be reversed by the failure to manage crises and by the delivering of a worse standard of living at the end of a term.  And so, while Starmer is looking at a “supermajority” on 5 July – mostly due to the unfair first-past-the-post electoral system – his share of the vote will be considerably lower than Blair’s in 1997… and that means that if Labour can stay the course until 2029, they could well be facing a wipeout at least as bad as the one Sunak’s Tories have helped to engineer for themselves in 2024.

As you made it to the end…

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