The national insurance hike to fund social care should have been a major political victory for Labour, personally gift wrapped by Boris Johnson. The policy amounts to a raid on the living standards of workers, whose wages have already been squeezed, to ensure “the children of Surrey homeowners can receive bigger inheritances”, as an unnamed cabinet minister eloquently put it. The new tax won’t even plug the gaps caused by years of cuts: while one 2019 House of Lords study found that social care needed £8bn immediate investment, the new pot of money amounts to just £1.8bn a year.
Labour could have presented a clear alternative, such as taxing capital gains at the same rate as income, which has broad political support and would raise £90bn over five years. It could have pledged to abandon the fragmented, largely privatised model of social care, where much of the care on offer is inadequate and seven in 10 social care workers are paid less than £10 an hour. Taxing the wealthy to build a publicly run care service that provides dignity and security for disabled and elderly people alike could have been a ready-made Labour pitch.
And yet Tory MPs are roaring with jubilation. It’s easy to see why. Labour failed to offer a coherent alternative and allowed Boris Johnson to evade scrutiny by highlighting this absence. Keir Starmer correctly pointed out the Tories were violating an election pledge not to hike NI contributions, but let’s be real here: if Johnson’s supporters cared about his dishonesty, they would have stopped voting for him long ago. Yet Labour seems to think the prime minister’s lack of integrity means he is only ever one scandal away from political ruin.
When Starmer denounced the Tories as “no longer the party of low tax” on Tuesday, he parroted a narrative that belongs to the right. The Labour leader suggested those with the “broadest shoulders” ought to pay more – but he laid out no plan for what this alternative might mean. Indeed, Starmer’s team often seem pathologically hostile to the idea that the interests of the majority of voters are on a collision course with those of elites. Instead, they prefer to emphasise competence, seeing politics as a matter of process rather than opposing interests.
This leaves the electorate cold. The art of politics is forcing your opponent into a defensive posture (as Ronald Reagan once put it, “When you’re explaining, you’re losing”). If Labour had spent the past few weeks campaigning for a hike on capital gains tax to solve the care crisis, its MPs could have asked why the Tories weren’t expecting the wealthy to pay up rather than shifting the burden on to low-paid checkout assistants, nurses and care workers.
When Labour lost the Hartlepool byelection in May, some shadow cabinet members snapped. One veteran of the New Labour era sharply told the leader: “People knew what Blair stood for, and, whatever you think about Corbyn, they knew what he stood for, but people don’t know what you stand for.” Starmer’s lack of vision was evident throughout the pandemic. There were countless stories the opposition could have told about how the Tories got it wrong, from putting business interests ahead of people’s wellbeing – and damaging the economy anyway – to presiding over one of the worst death tolls in Europe. Instead, they ended up quibbling with the details here and there, sometimes after the event itself.
This approach led many voters to conclude things would not have been any better under Labour, who offered only opposition for opposition’s sake. The same risk applies to social care. While prime minister’s questions is largely tedious theatre watched mostly by journalists, it can at least supply killer lines against the government, which are potential fodder for 10 O’Clock news clips: something Tony Blair in the 1990s could do to devastating effect. Instead, Starmer’s plodding, lawyerly approach, forensic as it may be, deals few blows to the Conservatives – as many of his own allies concede.
To remedy this lack of vision, Starmer has hired the former pollster Deborah Mattinson as his head of strategy. At a shadow cabinet away-day this Monday, she offered a useful presentation examining in granular detail the demographic groups Labour will need to win over. One group was defined as “Hero Labour” – voters who suffered from housing and job insecurity but had defected to the Tories, and whom Labour should present with a “real clear offer”. But Starmer’s allies acknowledge something is missing: the party leadership cannot name even five things that it believes in. Although some 200 policies have been announced since Starmer’s election, Mattinson’s polling found only one that resonated with voters: the pledge to “make, buy and sell more in Britain”, a repackaging of a Corbyn-era policy.
Starmer’s advisers are now talking of using party conference as an opportunity for a major relaunch: a dangerously counterproductive way to raise people’s expectations. Meanwhile some of Starmer’s MPs are aggressively pushing for leadership election rules to be changed to give them the whip hand, preventing a leftwing MP from succeeding him. These factional attacks on the left are precisely the problem.
When David Cameron was asked before the 2010 election why he wanted to be prime minister, he answered “because I think I’d be good at it”. The same seems to apply to the Labour leader: there is no political vision behind his ambition. While his allies’ hearts may beat a little faster at the thought of ostracising the left, they don’t have an alternative distinct from the Tories to offer the country either. That Starmer’s team are cheered by a single opinion poll suggesting Labour’s first lead since January – caused not by any surge in support for the opposition, but by Tory voters going elsewhere – suggests a party in denial about the scale of its problems. And so a scandal-ridden government, which has handled the pandemic catastrophically and is now battering the working poor to protect the asset rich, is getting away with it all. It’s a tragedy for Labour, but it’s worse for everyone else.