Labour – A Party of Government?

Labour – A Party of Government?

Assume that in the next 4 years Britain elects Labour led by Corbyn. What governing challenges might it face? We do not know what the world will be like in 2022. But conditions are unlikely to be propitious. With such caveats in mind, here goes.

Brexit  Surely we will have exited by then and agreed our trading relationship with the EU? Dream on. The former maybe. The latter unlikely. Even if the broad outlines are visible, there will remain a mass of important detail to be agreed, arguments to be sorted, legal issues to be clarified and implementation to be enacted. A new immigration policy will still be in the throes of implementation. And then there are the relationships with non-EU countries. The consequences of Brexit, the UK’s relationship with the EU, its relationship with Ireland, its changed status in the world will be the key issues for any British government for the foreseeable future.

What this means in practice will consume a very great deal of governmental/administrative oxygen for years to come. Corbyn may not be that interested in Brexit but he will find any administration he leads to be rather more consumed by it than he may like. If he remains as uninterested as now, there is a danger of drift or rivals seeking to take control or simply being overwhelmed. Studied ambiguity and indifference are not policies which will long survive contact with the real world.

A no deal / disorderly Brexit  Sorting out the consequences of a disorderly Brexit will be its all-consuming task, if that is when Labour takes power. A no-deal Brexit will take years to resolve. Many of Labour’s economic proposals are based on the assumption that Britain’s economy will be broadly similar to now – a finance sector to be taxed, car workers still gainfully employed. That may not, especially if there is a recession or something worse in the wake of a disorderly / no deal Brexit, be a safe assumption to make. If tax revenues are significantly down, Labour face making some very hard choices indeed.

The left behind  No – not the poor and disadvantaged. But all those matters which need action, some of it urgent, and which have been pushed to the back of the queue because of Brexit. Social care, housing, education for an AI world, poor productivity, energy etc will still be there, more pressing now, and liable to take up the government’s time.

Labour could find itself simply trying to sort out the problems left by others. All governments face this. But none have had to take power in the wake of one transformative event (Brexit) while seeking to transform society itself in a radical new direction with so little prior governmental experience. Which brings us to –

Its own priorities (“The religion of socialism”)  Labour’s last manifesto had many policies; Corbyn added, or implied, a few more in off the cuff campaigning. But any government has to choose its priorities, then be relentless in advancing those and implementing effective change: through Parliament, via the civil service, local government, quangos and NGOs, in compliance with national and international law, while maintaining sufficient public support and avoiding unforeseen consequences, pratfalls and general inertia to change. No easy task.

It requires a PM and Cabinet, united, focused, competent, understanding the difference between strategy and tactics, knowing when to be flexible, when not, able to give direction, to project manage or, rather, manage the project managers, able to make Britain’s bureaucracy work to achieve their aims.

Running the country when there are other centres of power, when you cannot expect to change the rules to suit you and pack all relevant bodies with your supporters, is not the same as taking control of a political party. Corbyn and allies have been very good at the latter. They have little experience of the former, even at a local level. Understanding how to use and using effectively the levers of government takes time and skill, even for genuinely transformative governments.

Managing expectations  Once Corbyn chooses his priorities he risks disappointing, even being unpopular, with those who will have voted for him. Some will be disappointed but patient; others furious. As a former Labour PM once said: “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” Easy to attack the broken promises of others. Much harder to explain why your own cannot be fulfilled. Does the Labour leadership have the political and personal toughness to cope with unpopularity with their own voters? Shrugging off attacks from political enemies is easy; from your own side very much harder.

Events  The known unknowns. But they will be there: national, international, violent, unexpected, relentless and demanding immediate attention and difficult judgment calls, which may go against the leadership’s natural instincts.

Corbyn’s character  He is a good campaigner, inspirational and passionate. But recent events have highlighted less flattering aspects. An aversion to criticism, even to questioning (eye-rolling is not a good look in a PM), a tendency to view any criticism of a Corbyn policy as a personal attack. That is a very l’etat c’est moi approach which does not bode well and could make PMQs a weekly torment. Governments are constantly and rightly under scrutiny and have to answer to Parliament, to Select Committees, to courts.

It is scrutiny of a kind Corbyn has rarely had to face. In government, ignoring questions, making up responses, changing stories, complaining, lying or being inaccurate or incomplete are no longer options. PMs need to have a thick skin, a willingness to explain and convince and reach out, not simply to preach to those who agree with you.

Easy to make speeches, to criticise and campaign against. Much harder to develop answers, implement and see through to tangible results. How to manage a Cabinet of politicians with their own budgets, empires and ambitions, or some form of coalition or other power sharing arrangement, let alone MPs, Parliamentary requirements and the rest? Something more emotionally intelligent and thoughtful than having your allies harangue them on social media will be needed. Voters will need to be listened to not attacked. All governments tend to end up with a bunker mentality. Starting out viewing voters and your own MPs through an “us and them” lens is risky. Just ask Mrs May.

This assumes that a Corbyn government will play by and within the current rules. Will it? Corbyn could not think of one positive aspect of capitalism when recently asked, not even the right to property. We cannot assume that his government will simply seek to ameliorate or share more equally what we currently have.

He seeks to change, possibly very significantly, the whole basis of how our economy and society is structured. If serious, that could also mean significant change to our governance, to existing checks and balances, to how government is scrutinised. If so, then all bets are off on what the next Labour government could mean in practice.


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