Sunak’s Choice

James Butler

Rishi Sunak visiting the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, 24 May 2024. Photo © Stefan Rousseau / PA Images / Alamy

Rishi Sunak kicked off the UK’s surprise general election last Thursday, standing unsheltered in torrential rain outside Number Ten. His sodden launch was only one of many puzzling choices in the first week of the campaign, including an inauspicious visit to the shipyards that built the Titanic. The timing and strategic wisdom of the election is a greater puzzle. At the start of the year, both May and October looked plausible: the first to coincide with the local elections, the second to allow for a fiscal event in the autumn, replete with bribes for core Tory voters. Sunak’s announcement that the general election will be held on 4 July seems to have caught almost everyone – party machine, politicians, press – by surprise.

It is difficult to explain Sunak’s choice. He can hardly have missed that the polling average puts the Tories twenty points behind Labour. Recent economic good news is abstract compared to the enduringly high cost of virtually everything. The prime minister is not a man overburdened with charisma. The Conservatives’ chief electoral strategist, Isaac Levido, has stressed the ‘enthusiasm gap’ for Labour. But it takes some elaborate self-deception to read that voters despise you more than they like the other guy and take it as good news. Sunak must know he is going to lose. Perhaps he just wants it all to be over.

The prime minister may have been eyeing the exit, but he may also have been motivated by internal party factors. Most of his MPs have been in near-open dissension with his leadership; the war of succession has already begun. A welter of bad news is also likely before the autumn: not only the long-delayed Grenfell Inquiry report, but a seasonal increase in small boats crossing the Channel and a series of court challenges over deportations to Rwanda. An intervention from the European Court would have created an unmanageable rift in the Conservative Party – and the electorate – over withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights.

There’s also the question of losing well or badly. A decent loss (retaining more than two hundred seats) will smooth Sunak’s transition to post-political life; a catastrophic loss (under 120) could shatter the party for a decade. Such ‘policy’ announcements as the ill-defined National Service programme seem designed to stem the vote haemorrhage to Reform and appeal to the Tories’ ageing core voters (though only men over the age of 84, about 1 per cent of the population, are old enough to have done National Service themselves). A major difficulty, for Labour as well as the Tories, is a growing scepticism among voters that politicians in power can or will do any of the things they promise.

A raft of prominent Tories have already abandoned ship, depriving viewers of televisual schadenfreude on the evening of 4 July. The most significant is Michael Gove, whose successor in Surrey Heath is likely to be run close by the Liberal Democrats. But Gove is (by political standards) young, and thinks strategically. It may be that he believes he can have more influence over the future of Conservatism by returning to the pages of the Times to promote his ideology – at its core still the armed, paranoid neoconservatism of the 2000s – and his preferred candidates. It is unlikely to be a quiet retirement. Liz Truss remains obdurate. Her recent appearance on the ultra-reactionary conspiracy theory podcast ‘Lotus Eaters’ – which proffers a sub-Spenglerian inquiry into the ‘rot eating into the heart of the modern world’ – previews just one of the possible circuits of madness awaiting a post-Sunak party in opposition.

It is a surprise election with little surprising about it so far. The impromptu lift-off has left Labour scrabbling to land its messages and complete a bout of bloodletting and proscription before the candidacy deadlines close on 7 June. It has unveiled its first slogan, combining the vacuous and the Orwellian in ‘Stability is Change’. Yet the final result is not really in doubt: in a few weeks, Keir Starmer will be prime minister. Much of Labour’s unseemly activity in the past week has been guided by the expectation of victory: candidacies imposed for reasons of patronage and reward, or to rid the parliamentary party of lingering dissenters and provide Starmer with a frictionless debut in government.

Labour’s National Executive Committee has extensive powers to impose or alter candidacies in an election. It is not unusual for the party’s leadership to try to influence selections, or to strike deals with retiring MPs to replace them with favoured candidates. (Blair came to regret some of these, which elevated a parade of mediocrities to the Lords.) Starmer’s stitch-ups, though, have gone further than his predecessors’, removing prominent left-wingers in murky and underhand processes, and replacing them with favoured apparatchiks from Blairite pressure groups and the old Labour right – many of whom sit on the NEC. Two of the three panellists on Faiza Shaheen’s rushed NEC hearing have subsequently been handed candidacies. Her removal as the candidate for Chingford, along with the mishandling of Diane Abbott’s candidacy in Hackney – after Labour sources told the Times on Monday that she would be barred from standing, she is now, Starmer says, ‘free to stand’ after all – have stoked suspicions that minority candidates get treated differently by the boys’ club of enforcers around Starmer. Both cases seem marked by an appetite not only for factional victory but outright cruelty.

The enforcers don’t think this matters. Even if such behaviour ate a point or two from the lead, it would be worth it to produce a docile and compliant party. They are right that it is unlikely to shift many votes. But questions of character and fair dealing can linger in voters’ perceptions of politicians. Starmer insists he wants candidates of the ‘highest quality’, although the relative merits of lifelong bag-carriers and lobbyist drones are hard to discern when set against Shaheen’s trajectory from poor roots to real academic and professional achievement, and her obvious commitment to the area in which she grew up. The question nobody has yet asked Starmer concerns his frequent references to the way his toolmaker father was treated: last year he told the Guardian the quality he most deplores in others is disrespect. Does he think his party has treated either Abbott or Shaheen with respect?

The purge of the left cements Starmer’s dependence on his two key strategists, Morgan McSweeney and Matt Pound. The sometimes protean nature of the early Starmer period has calcified. His government is likely to share the vices of previous Labour governments: a strong conformism, interpreting disagreement as disloyalty, and a corresponding distaste for scrutiny. The eruption of the Abbott case seems to have been caused by elements on the party’s right being unable to resist triumphalist briefing about blocking her candidacy. It’s hard to see the appetite for intrigue and factionalism disappearing in government, especially when the Starmer project encounters real turbulence. It is less than wise to elevate inveterate plotters merely because they currently support you. Gratitude does not last long in politics.

The Labour left, meanwhile, cuts something of a sad figure. Its silence over the stitch-ups, motivated by self-preservation, has something of the grave about it. It must regret the failure to democratise selections and clip the NEC’s wings under Corbyn. Its strategic options are few, even though the progressive vote is likely to be strong in July. Left-wing unions have made a fuss about Labour’s ebbing commitment to its New Deal for Working People, though they may not have the strength to impose their will during the manifesto negotiations. They would be wise not to take vague commitments seriously. A strong mix of sentimentality and hard-headedness about Britain’s electoral system keeps left-wing politicians wedded to a leadership that despises them in a party without real means of internal leverage. Even defenestrated MPs make ritual obeisance to the leadership. The statements read like revenant Bukharin: there is something great and bold about the political idea of a general purge. Vote Labour.

What people will be voting for is less clear. Some MPs are already concerned that Labour’s messages are being lost amid the selection drama. It doesn’t help that the messages are vague. As the drama recedes, more important questions are bound to arise: are the commitments on energy merely rebadged private finance initiatives, an opportunity for private companies to leech off the state? What are they actually going to do about social care, other than hand-wave about private sector capacity? Why has the commitment to housebuilding receded from the offer? Do they really think they can do any of this without spending more money? Isn’t their proposed ‘fiscal lock’ a set of self-defeating handcuffs? With such questions looming, perhaps the fog of selection drama will be welcome for a while yet.


  • 1 June 2024 at 1:30pm
    Dr_Jim says:
    Labour, under the leadership of Sir Kier Starmer, is now the party of neoliberalism following the abdication of the Conservatives from that economic and political territory. The discourse of neoliberalism privileges the market and champions free trade, open borders and free movement of capital. The disastrous Truss-Kwarteng budget constituted an attack on the bond market in particular, resulting in high interest rates, more expensive mortgages and a collapse in the value of personal pension funds. With Brexit, the Conservatives became the party of post-neoliberal anti-globalist reactionary populism by implementing policies to impede the free movement of goods, services and people. The Conservatives appear to have given up on neoliberalism, preferring instead to opt for a combination of uncosted spending, tax cuts and right-wing nationalism. With breath-taking opportunism, Labour have become the ‘party of business’ and present themselves as the guardians of fiscal rectitude.
    The economist Ludwig von Mises and his student F.A. Hayek, alongside Wilhelm Röpke and others, developed a theory of neoliberal free trade at a time in the early twentieth century when the trend to establish protectionist trade barriers between national economies was in the ascendant. Their vision was to establish rules for the conduct of international free trade but it was explicitly anti-democratic. As Quinn Slobodian writes, ‘the normative neoliberal world is not a borderless market without states and but a doubled world kept safe from mass demands for social justice and redistributive equality by the guardians of the economic constitution’. In other words, the neoliberal project was ‘focused on designing institutions not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy’. By adopting such neoliberal ideology, Starmer’s Labour threatens redistributive social justice and presages the decline of the public sphere in health and education.

  • 1 June 2024 at 1:33pm
    freshborn says:
    A bit silly for anyone to suggest that Abbott and Shaheen were treated differently due to their race. They were treated exactly the same as any other left-winger. The only significance of racism in this election is that of Tory voters who simply won't vote for Sunak.

    Regardless, I struggle to understand why any left-winger persists with this utterly right-wing party. Starmer's direction has been clear since 2020. The message is not at all vague, he and Reeves are promising a return to austerity. If that isn't sinking in it's only because people prefer the fantasy of Labour to the patent reality, the colour red more salient than the words being spoken.

    • 1 June 2024 at 3:18pm
      XopherO says: @ freshborn
      "A bit silly for anyone to suggest that Abbott and Shaheen were treated differently due to their race. They were treated exactly the same as any other left-winger." I don't quite agree. There is obvious misogyny, which has dogged Labour since its birth and which Butler obliquely refers to. There is more than a hint of racism on top. These two coloured women have been singled out for special attention because of their popularity, particularly as bold, successful examples to other coloured women. Their charisma simply shows up Starmer's Labour's greyness and lack of conviction. One thing is sure, whatever Starmer's politics were his behaviour suggests strongly he would make a poor PM - another reason not to vote for him. He clearly has no political philosophy, and no empathy. Does he have psychopathic tendencies? As Butler comments, "Both cases seem marked by an appetite not only for factional victory but outright cruelty."

  • 1 June 2024 at 3:55pm
    RegPresley says:
    Labour has always been pretty factional. In 2019, Momentum launched a campaign to deselect rightwingers, emboldened by the fact that their faction had taken a grip on party membership (and fee-paying supporters). This campaign, disingenuously characterised as 'democratic' as though the members were not just self-selected, well, members, didn’t get very far and was extinguished by the disastrous result of the December 2019 election. The party won the arguments, apparently, but lost the election. To an egregious charlatan.

    After that defeat, and after Starmer's victory in the leadership contest, a different faction took over. This faction is different from the Momentum faction not only in espousing more moderate ('centrist' if you like) policies and approaches but also in its ruthless focus on the small matter of winning power. Corbyn's entire career was an exercise in avoiding that issue, as was obvious to everyone who knew him or had followed him since the 80s. He only became leader by accident after all, an accident that helped produce the extraordinary spectacle of a choice at the December 2019 election between two bizarrely unsuitable candidates for prime minister.

    One can argue till the cows come home about the relative merits of sticking to one's principles in politics or being prepared to modify or even compromise those principles in order to become the government. But this is at this moment a largely academic argument. Certainly politics is about principles but it is not *only* about principles, and electoral politics - which is what we are watching just now - does, for obvious reasons, prioritise the principle of winning.

    As for complaints that Labour's offer is vague, this is unconvincing in substance - after the missions, the first steps, the specific approaches already spelled out in most policy areas - but is also a strangely mistimed complaint; in a week or two the manifesto will be published. That will be the time to complain about vagueness, though it's likely to be an even less convincing complaint then than it is now.

    • 1 June 2024 at 5:13pm
      XopherO says: @ RegPresley
      A bit too easy to blame Corbyn for Labour's failure. There is the more significant 'get Brexit done' from Johnson, coupled with Labour saying it would have a second go at the referendum - seriously toxic, forced on Corbyn - lost many votes. Then there is the systematic rubbishing of Corbyn by his own party, including paid officials as revealed in the Forde report, on top of the tabloid continuous hate and distortion, and the weaponisation of antisemitic accusations. But he was not really cut out to be a leader any more than Starmer, who has benefitted from the enormous dislike of the Tories their antics since Johnson have generated. We shall have to see whether the manifesto measures up to the ones in 2017 (which was liked by voters) and 2019 which never stood a chance mired in the Brexit shenanigans. I think a lot of people on the left understand that to get elected you can't be too radical. The 2017 manifesto was simply social-democratic, far from socialist, and economically literate in proposing borrowing for capital projects which balance the borrowing on the books, at the low interest rates at the time. God knows where Starmer is going to find the capital without borrowing. But there has to be the possibility of debate, not shutting it down. Dissent. The socialist movement of 19th century was built on dissent. Oh I know, we have to let go of the past if we are going to be truly neoliberal.

    • 5 June 2024 at 5:35pm
      Debord says: @ RegPresley
      This line that Labour has "always been factional", intended to airily wave away the turbo-charged factionalism under Starmer, is transparent. Momentum's campaign wasn't about "deselecting right-wingers", it was about putting the power to select candidates firmly in the hands of members. Something Keir Starmer professed to fully agree with until he won the leadership and ditched that belief, as he did most others he won on.

      To characterise Starmer as being focused on power and Corbyn as not rather relies on omitting the 2017 election and the endless skullduggery we now know about. It also speaks volumes as to your own biases to claim that Labour is now 'moderate' - what is 'moderate' about the demonising of migrants, deference to wealth and apparent addiction to lying that now characterises Labour? It's not 'moderate', it's just seen as 'normal' because we haven't had a government that did otherwise in decades, not least because all of the above is pushed by our media.

    • 5 June 2024 at 9:55pm
      RegPresley says: @ XopherO
      I didn’t blame Corbyn for the failure but fail they undoubtedly did.

    • 5 June 2024 at 10:06pm
      RegPresley says: @ Debord
      Of course Momentum's campaign was about deselecting rightwingers. They had built up the membership of young, more left-wing members and wanted the parliamentary party to reflect that membership. The oft-repeated Momentum claim that it was simply a more democratic way of selecting MPs is pure humbug. The membership is not a demos, it's a self-selected, or recruited, membership.

      Nothing wrong with that, you might say, but it was flawed as a strategy for winning power, particularly in the Brexit-sozzled atmosphere of 2019.

      The accusation that Labour demonises migrants, is deferential to wealth and is addicted to lying is a far more biased stance than describing them as moderate, in my opinion.

  • 1 June 2024 at 8:27pm
    steve kay says:
    Faisal Shaheen rejected as a candidate, Luke Akehurst swiftly adopted as a candidate. Need one say more?

    • 4 June 2024 at 11:13am
      David Gordon says: @ steve kay
      No, one need not. The lack of discussion of the faults of Akehurst in the media is extraordinary. He may be clever at organisation and good with a spreadsheet but many of his views make him quite unsuitable to be parachuted into Durham. Perhaps it is something to do with the eleventh commandment mentioned by Groucho.

  • 1 June 2024 at 10:20pm
    Graucho says:
    Keir Starmer was the architect of Labour's ludicrous Brexit proposal in 2019. Tell your red wall voters they got it wrong and they are going to have to vote again - seriously ? That Corbyn went with it is testament to his poor judgement, whether it was also poor judgement on Starmer's part or a Machiavellian scheme to ensure defeat and the unseating of his leader is a subject of speculation. One thing is clear though. In Starmer's party the 11th commandment is Thou shalt not criticise the state of Israel.

  • 6 June 2024 at 2:08pm
    Howard Medwell says:
    Slowly it dawns on one that Sir Kier Starmer is nothing new - Labour has always been a reactionary party, committed above all to the wellbeing of British capitalism (and in the past, as during the years 1945 - 51 of the British Empire). The next government will be not noticeably more progressive than the current one; indeed, as regards its likely enthusiasm for participating in pointless wars, it will very likely be worse. Personally, I'd rather have the enfeebled, punch-drunk Tories clinging to office, rather than see Sir Keir pumped up with a 300-seat majority.

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