Failing Political Class

The Labour-Tory Crisis

It’s hard to say “United Kingdom” without a sigh.

There go the BAME voters. Labour satire, Croydon.

For those subject to the train wreck that is British politics today, there is little to smile about.

Still, the British electorate has found one thing on which it generally agrees: its dislike of the leaders of the main parties.

According to a recent Ipsos poll, Keir Starmer’s satisfaction rating has declined 4% since February to an anaemic 25%.

This is not surprising, given the highly polarised nature of the British electorate. However, according to YouGov, his approval rating is 53%, even among Labour’s core constituency.

This might seem low, even more so because Starmer’s net score (the difference between those dissatisfied and those satisfied) hit -31, eclipsing his previous record of -29 set two years ago.

This is a measure of the feeling of voters generally, a large proportion of whom would be disinclined to approve of the job he was doing under any circumstances.

Still, Keir Starmer is different from his opponent. Although his numbers are dire, they are still a bit north of those currently registered by Rishi Sunak, the sitting prime minister.

According to YouGov, his overall satisfaction rating has been 22% since February, while his dissatisfaction has risen two points to 69%.

Like Starmer, Sunak’s performance is not only a personal worst but has also tied John Major’s rating from August 1994 during the darkest depths of his second stint as prime minister.

Any further degradation of his position will eclipse the -60 registered by Jeremy Corbyn while in the worst throes of the character assassination campaign that accompanied Starmer’s rise to power.

Rishi Sunak is currently so unpopular that his appearance wearing a pair of Adidas Sambas sparked a wave of media commentary on the death of that particular brand.

If public distaste for his leadership has not sunk to those of, say, Charles I, this doesn’t mean they aren’t close, although since Ipsos wasn’t polling in the 17th century, we’ll never really know.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about major party politicians in England is that none of them have been arrested (lately).

While this seems like a relatively low bar, it has not been met by the Scottish Nationalist Party, whose former leader was arrested and questioned last year, while her husband was arrested (for a second time) this week.

Sadly, the pair were not the only prominent party members to be found down the nick in recent years.

Once again, according to Ipsos, 84% of those surveyed are dissatisfied with the government.

At one level, the Sunak government’s failure to generate enthusiasm is about what one would expect. His most attractive quality when he came to power was that he wasn’t Liz Truss.

The latter has returned to the public eye recently, if not in a way that has managed to diminish her overwhelming unpopularity.

With her tenure as prime minister lasting less than the lifespan of a Mosquito, Truss faded from view, much to the relief of most of her government colleagues and pretty much anyone else in the country with an interest in basic administrative competence.

Now she had returned with a new book which, in addition to trashing everyone from the Bank of England to Joe Biden, may have violated the rules governing ministerial memoirs.

Described by The Guardian as “unstoppably self-serving, petulant, and politically jejune”, Truss’s book’s main thrust is a robust defence of Kwame Kwarteng’s budget, one of the most ill-conceived and tone-deaf ever proposed.

The reasons for the general unpopularity at the top of British politics are various, with many being related to the specifics of the individual parties.

The Tories have a record of bungling unmitigated by any real successes since the party tumbled into the Brexit debacle eight years ago.

Labour collectively has about as many fresh ideas as a Jethro Tull reunion. The Liberal Democrats are like the last season of Lost, limping along to a conclusion that most people long ago lost interest in.

But a larger malaise unites the lot. None of the major British parties has what voters want.

As Truss’s brief occupation of 10 Downing Street illustrated, the Tories’ economic thinking is split between devotees of laissez-faire economics discredited in the 1980s and those openly committed to a policy of personal enrichment and devil take the hindmost.

Rishi Sunak was brought in not so much to change the fundamentals of Truss’s policy as to deflect attention from it.

His failure to do so is part of the Conservatives’ bad bet in Brexit, that a “return of sovereignty” would distract voters from the prospect that their economic policies would result in adverse consequences for 90% of the country.

Noting the failure of Torynomics to turn around the fortunes of the Conservatives, Starmer’s most original ideas were to wrap himself in the Union Jack and to offer up economic policies that can most charitably be described as Margaret Thatcher with a human face.

While it must be admitted that any move toward humanising Thatcher’s policies would have to be rated an improvement, the bar for that is so low as to be subterranean.

Leaving aside the Lib Dems, as most British voters have chosen to do, what unites Labour and the Conservatives is a wholesale disregard for the middle and lower classes.

Sunak’s government is promoting policies which, if enacted in toto, would result in a degree of income inequality that would make Nigel Lawson blush.

Starmer’s rejoinder seems limited to free markets and God Save the King.

If Labour succeeds in the next election, and most of the available polling data suggest that they will, it will be in spite of Starmer and his policies rather than because of them.

The Conservatives are exhibiting many of the same characteristics as the S.S. Titanic in the brief period between hitting the iceberg and disappearing below the waves.

In addition to their policy failings, Britain’s governing party has been mired in scandals that turn off voters concerned with paying their mortgages or getting treated through the NHS.

For sheer humour value, it would be hard to do better than the clown show in which Conservative MP Mark Menzies seems to have involved himself, involving the misuse of campaign funds and strong-arming money out of an aide to fend off the ministrations of Mafia enforcers.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg (so to speak), with a fair number of other rats leaving the sinking ship even before they are turfed out when the next election is called.

As has been the case throughout Sunak’s time at the helm, Keir Starmer’s best strategy can be summed up in that old adage that if one’s opponent is committing suicide, it’s best to let him.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to point out problems than it is to fix them. Not the least of those currently facing Britain is that, although people are pretty sure about what they don’t want, it’s hard to focus effectively on what they want.

This is especially so given the absence of political alternatives and the firm grip of both Labour and the Tories on the national imagination.

One gets the impression that British voters want one of the extant political parties to come up with viable new ideas rather than some untested insurgent group to break the mould.

Neither seems likely to do so.

The Tories are still pining for a return to the 1980s when they convinced the country that holding on to the Falklands was better than having any real economic prospects.

Labour hasn’t even got that going for them. Starmer’s idee fixe is that the disintegration of the Liberal Democrats has created a golden opportunity for a lurch to the right.

If Labour could dump Team Starmer, there is a real prospect that they could do some good. A social democratic party would go a long way right now.

Some judicious redistribution, proper funding for the NHS, and a policy towards Europe divorced from the Tories’ transparent nationalism could do them a world of good.

But for the short term, it seems certain that the neoliberal rot is so profound that the Labour leadership will exhaust the party in a fruitless chase toward a non-existent middle ground.

Who can say how long the malaise will endure. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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Photograph courtesy of Duncan Cumming. Published under a Creative Commons license.