The edge of extinction

by John Q on June 14, 2024

Referring back to this 2002 post defining “neoliberalism”, I find the claim that the “The (UK) Conservative party is hovering on the edge of extinction”. That wasn’t one of my more accurate assessments, and I’m bearing it in mind when I look at suggestions that the party is now “facing a defeat so dramatic it may not survive.” (that’s the headline, the actual suggestion is that the future may be one of “long periods of Labour with occasional periods of Conservative governments”

As shown the example of my 2002 assessment (quite widely shared at the time), there’s a lot of ruin in a political party. Particularly in a constituency system like that in the UK and its offshoots, political parties are long-lived and can recover from crushing defeats. The Canadian experience is, in many ways, the exception that proves (tests) the rule. In 1993, the bizarrely named Progressive Conservative party lost all but two of its seats and was displaced (foreshadowing a possible UK future) by the recently formed Reform party. But in mere 10 years the two had merged to form the Conservative party which regained office in 2006 (thanks to the first-past the post system the Conservatives could win with minority support against three parties to their left).

That suggests one possible future for the Conservatives. A loss this time around will lead to an eventual merger with Reform and a return to the long-standing two-party system.

The case for extinction rests on the huge age gradient created by Brexit. Before Brexit, the UK wasn’t that much different from other countries. Young people were somewhat to the left but other factors (income, education and so on) were more relevant. But Brexit was a piece nostalgia politics in which old voters, with no real stake in the outcome, chose to indulge their fantasies at the expense of the young. Since then, the political right (both Tories and UKIP/Reform/Brexit party) has relied entirely on old voters. Even in the triumph of 2019, the right secured a majority only among voters over 50

The failure of Brexit and the disastrous mismanagement of the pandemic have obliterated support for the right among voters of working age (for whom political decisions matter). The right has majority support only among voters over 70, who can afford to vote frivolously, knowing that their pensions are safe and that they won’t be around to experience the adverse consequences of their choices

Among 18-24 voters the picture is truly dire. Combined support for the Tories and Reform is 14 per cent, level pegging with the Greens. It’s even more striking among young women, with only 5 per cent supporting the Tories. Among other things, that’s well below the proportion identifying as LGBT. If the right respond to defeat in the coming election by amplifying anti-woke rhetoric it’s hard to see this situation improving.

More generally, it’s hard to see the UK right regrouping successfully in the term of the next parliament. But in 10 years time, many of the 70+ voters who form their political base at present will be gone, replaced by young people who have no positive memories of conservative government. So far at least, there is no sign of any attempt to attract new voters. Most obviously, the proposal for national service seems designed to do the opposite, shoring up the support of the old at the cost of writing off the young.

With Starmer chasing the same voters, it’s possible to imagine the emergence of a strong left opposition party building on existing youth support for the Greens and the progressive elements of the Liberal Democrats. More probable, I think is a future where a centre-right Starmer government holds on for years, even with minority support, with its opponents split between left and far-right. I can’t say this is a particularly hopeful vision, but, should it come to pass, I won’t be mourning the Tories.



Chris Armstrong 06.14.24 at 8:49 am

This is pretty accurate I think. The Conservatives have been looking at the demographics for some time and weeping. Brexit was their last card to play (and they’ll keep trying to play it, but get less and less mileage out of it as Labour refuses to play ball). They tried to resist their decline by introducing mandatory voter ID (and skewing the relevant rules in favour of pensioners), but the signs are that this will not make much difference. And now Labour might lower the voting age to 16, which will compound their problems.

Frankly, they’ve got to the stage where a sizeable proportion of party bigwigs would now prefer a period in opposition, and the opportunity to do some creative thinking / realignment. It is notable that no-one has ruled out some kind of merger or deal with Reform, even though Reform are really hurting them right now. These will be an interesting few years for them, albeit unedifying for everyone else.


notGoodenough 06.14.24 at 11:22 am

I think that this seems pretty plausible. With little to distinguish Tory and Labour on pretty much any issue (from labour rights to austerity to culture wars to privatising the NHS to [etc.]), I think they will largely appeal (or, perhaps, appall) the same groups. While there isn’t really a political left to speak of (at least in terms of addressing equality within and between class) there are some who are (a bit) more left than others – and I suspect Labour will lose voters there (not that, as they’ve made abundantly clear, they particularly care about that).

Generally speaking, given the political and media groups largely overlap, it is more-or-less that the Labour right have been crowned the new “very sensible grown ups” so that they may continue much the same policies as the previous “very sensible grown ups” (who have subsequently been found to be not particularly any of those things but as it would be rather embarrassing to notice that it will all be swept under the rug in favour of varying degrees of excitement about the prospect of the next swing on the neoliberal centrism / right wing populism pendulum – see UK media ad passim). While I doubt a strong left wing will be permitted to emerge any time soon (nascent movements with any degree of success will be strangled before they pose any real threat), the mood in the UK – in which people are facing yet more decades of bleak austerity coupled with the looting of the public purse – doesn’t seem to be overwhelmingly optimistic. Whether the alienation of the public will lead to organisation in spite of the powerful tools of the opposing class interests, or whether it will be (thanks in no small part to the efforts of a politico-media class mostly in lock-step) misdirected into right-wing populism will remain to be seen. It is possible that we may see galvanisation in a good direction (I think younger generations are, thanks to the ongoing collapse of..well…everything, I bit less complacent and a bit more aware than those of the past), but I think it would be unwise to underestimate just how big the obstacles facing effective organisation will be.

It seems to me that a large Labour victory is more-or-less guaranteed (sadly this will likely be taken as support for their conservative policies rather than disgust at their predecessors), but it will be rather interesting to see the contest in areas where there is more of a choice than merely between cherry or blueberry flavoured conservativism. For example, Islington North (particularly given Corbyn standing as an independent) and Ilford North might be instructive to examine.


Janus Daniels 06.14.24 at 2:53 pm

The party of billionaires, bigots, and berks can never die.
~ I’ve always said that, and I’ve always wanted to be wrong.


Tm 06.14.24 at 5:59 pm

I still get a server error when posting on the Macron thread. Another test…


Doctor Science 06.14.24 at 7:54 pm

This USan doesn’t understand why Labour is pro-austerity, instead of going for a Keynesian + soak-the-rich approach. I mean, over here we haven’t even managed to soak the rich all that much (yet), but the Democrats’ relatively Keynesian approach is paying big economic dividends across the board. Is austerity really the UK’s only economic option, or is it the only political option for some cross-party political or cultural reason?


PatinIowa 06.14.24 at 9:28 pm

I just listened to an LRB podcast on the election and the consensus sounded like notGoodenough at 2, i.e, the Conservative Party may die, or recede for a long while, but austerity and privatization are here to stay.

The only glimmer of hope for a Labour government was the notion that Labour is a tiny bit aware that global climate change exists, and needs to be addressed.

But it’s just a glimmer. Mostly “mendacity” and “cowardice” seemed to be their take.


Alex SL 06.15.24 at 12:17 am

Everything seems exactly correct except for the conclusion at the end. An electoral wipe-out followed by a comeback of the right under some rebranding or merger is most probable. Attempting a comeback under the same branding and without a merger is a greater risk and less probable, because another party like Reform or the Lib Dems could take that spot instead, especially if they get enough media attention as the official opposition over five years. Finally, no comeback and a generational dominance of Labour seems the least probable, because there will always be a large constituency for “I have got mine, why should I pay taxes to help poorer people?” and for “I am afraid of foreigners”, and no matter how centre-right Starmer goes, they will not think he delivers that for them, and the billionaire-owned media will tell them the same.

Even all of that aside, however, it seems highly improbable to me that there is a future where a centre-right Starmer government holds on for years. The problem is precisely that he is centre-right, he won’t do anything to raise the kind of money that would allow him to do anything significant, and he has so firmly committed to never doing anything to reverse the damage of Brexit that he would blow up all of his credibility and electoral mandate if he changed course on that. As the beneficiary of its design flaws, he also seems highly unlikely to do something about first past the post. The most likely outcome is therefore that the economic situation and service provision do not improve for most people during his first five years, and on the basis of that disillusionment, Labour support implodes to 30% at the next election in 2029.


marcel proust 06.15.24 at 12:28 am

I know that concern with dangling participles is a sign of pedantry, but how about dangling footnotes? I see an indication of a fn 1, but don’t see an actual fn 1. I feel like I’ve been left dangling.

D’oh! I edited in a way that made the footnote unnecessary, but forgot to remove the pointer. Fixed now, I hope! – JQ


Chris Bertram 06.15.24 at 7:00 am

For Starmer’s future, consider Macron’s current predicament. It all depends on whether Starmer is seen to be solving the problems faced by the country and, in particular, by the young. So far, he seems set on denying himself the means to do so. It wouldn’t surprise me to see young men, in particular, flocking to the populist right in a few years. I don’t thing value alignments are as stable in the era of TikTok as they were when political tribes were strongly organized around institutions.


ozajh 06.15.24 at 7:35 am

I disagree with notgoodenough @ 2, but since I comment from a long way away I could well be wrong.

With little to distinguish Tory and Labour on pretty much any issue (from labour rights to austerity to culture wars to privatising the NHS to [etc.])

That is a fairly spectacular piece of both-siderism, IMHO. The Labour party headed by Mr Starmer may well be characterised as centre-right, even small-c conservative, but that’s still a long way from the current version of the Tories.

I am much closer to the views expressed by Alex SL @ 7, right down to the fear that if Labour can’t be seen to deal with the UK’s problems there might be a Reform government in 5 years time (whether it would be called Reform or Conservative doesn’t matter).


engels 06.15.24 at 10:24 am

The party of billionaires, bigots, and berks can never die.

No but it can infect a new host.


engels 06.15.24 at 10:40 am

Brexit was their last card to play (and they’ll keep trying to play it, but get less and less mileage out of it as Labour refuses to play ball).

It’s funny how the People’s Vote campaign evaporated the minute Corbyn was deposed.


Chris Bertram 06.15.24 at 12:16 pm

“It’s funny how the People’s Vote campaign evaporated the minute Corbyn was deposed.”

In fact, PV imploded in October 2019, there was a General Election in the December and Corbyn ceased to be Labour leader in April 2020.


notGoodenough 06.15.24 at 2:47 pm

Doc Science @ 5

The incredibly short and simplistic version is that the Labour right have taken over Labour and are purging any of the remaining remotely left wing representatives, which is compounded by their wish to replace the traditional union-based power base with wealthy donors a la the Tories. So, while the UK absolutely could (and should) tax the rich to pay for improved infrastructure and services, it will not happen under Starmer’s Labour, largely due to a mixture of class interest and ideological commitment.

ozajh @ 10

While I won’t pretend to be able to read the future, I do think it is useful to look at a few case studies to draw some conclusions. For example, Starmer has confirmed that the two-child cap will be kept by Labour if it wins the next election (putting him as more conservative than Suella Braverman’s stated position on this issue); Labour has dropped “the NHS is not for sale” from its manifesto, with Wes Streeting (shadow Health Secretary) stating “We will go further than New Labour ever did. I want the NHS to form partnerships with the private sector that goes beyond just hospitals” and that he will be “holding the door wide open” to private interests in the NHS; Starmer has backed a ban on trans women in female-only wards and prisons; Labour has pledged reduce net migration and stop small boat crossings, as well as creating a new Border Security Command with hundreds of new investigators, intelligence officers and cross-border police officers; Labour is planning to create a GB Energy marketed as “taking back control of our energy” (despite the misleading name this is not a nationalised energy generator, but rather an underwriter for private sector risk).

These just a few of the things which come to mind which, to me at least, paint Starmer’s Labour as being a pro-austerity, socially and politically conservative (with a big C) party which will be tough on society and tough on the causes of society (if I may be permitted a moment of dark humour).

I think it is plausible we will see the Tories shift right to chase the Reform vote, and Labour shift right to chase the Tory vote, so I suppose one might draw a distinction there (though I’m not sure the gap between them will be quite as long as you seem to believe). It is also true that I don’t think there will be no difference at all – for example, I suspect Starmer’s Labour (at least to begin with) will more passively acquiesce to whatever brutal suppression the culture wars demand rather than actively promoting it (and no doubt will be pilloried by the UK media in response); perhaps during the inevitable next looting of the treasury to support the cocaine-addled gamblers of the financial industry the rhetoric will be more of regrettable necessity than gleeful peasant-bashing ; maybe even (dare we dream?) the rapacious exploitation of the public in service to the few wealthy might be a degree slower – but I don’t really see it as particularly meaningful distinctions, but more a branding exercise. And, when the pendulum swings again, they will have laid the ground for the even-further-right (and actively suppressed the left). So, not exactly a cause for optimism.


Kent 06.15.24 at 6:03 pm

I’d like to second the question posed by Doctor Science @5. Any thoughts from folks over the pond would be much appreciated.


Doctor Science 06.15.24 at 9:13 pm

@ notGoodenough
Thank you for trying, I am still in the dark. You say right-Labour has a “wish to replace the traditional union-based power base with wealthy donors a la the Tories”–so this power base has nothing to do with “voters”, then? And yet I thought one of the big advantages of your system of politics was that campaigning isn’t as continually & obscenely expensive as it is over here.

Part of what is confusing me (and possibly @Kent) is that on this side of The Pond we’ve had 3 0r 4 decades of “Republicans lower taxes & run up deficits, Democrats reverse them” cycling back and forth. So I instinctively assume that since the Tories are all about austerity & privatisation, Labour will be the reverse–in part because the voters will be saying “austerity is bullshit”. But they … aren’t? Or are they? Is there an anti-austerity party?


Harry 06.15.24 at 9:57 pm

I actually thought your 2002 comment was pretty good. They had a resurfacing but the fundamental problems facing them haven’t changed and post-Brexit everything has come home to roost.

What happens next? I don’t think you should rule out a substantial period (a decade or two) in which there are three parties of the right, each viable in different places. Reform is a socially authoritarian right wing party capable of competing with Labour in the North and the Conservatives in the east. The Lib Dems are a socially liberal right of center party which can compete with the conservatives in the non-urban south and the west. And the tories can compete in some places (including Scotland). And Labour has to compete, eventually, with them all (which has its own problems). Labour will lose a lot of seats in 2029, and if those three parties are able to coexist they’ll all have an interest in electoral reform as soon as they can influence government. (And any kind of PR would end the Labour Party pretty quickly: freed of the need to vote Labour to keep the tories out a fairly reliably left 15-20% of voters would back a red/green party).

That’s one unlikely but not impossible story. It’s premised on the lib Dems being more orange than pink, which I think is a fair assessment of their time in government (including local government), though it isn’t really their self-perception.

My attempt to answer Dr Science’s question: it’s simply extreme caution of a kind which currently looks not just abundant but absurd. They’ve been burned too many times and live in fear of being portrayed as over-taxers. And: the current tax bill is very high indeed, not much scope for increases. And they (I think rightly) think that voters are economically conservative. And they weren’t betting on Farage entering the race and Sunak being more inept a campaigner than any previous sitting Prime Minister, by degrees of magnitude. If Sunak were merely somewhat incompetent and Farage had stuck with Trump things would probably be tighter than they are and Labour’s self-shackling wouldn’t look as ludicrous as it does.


Howard Frant 06.16.24 at 12:43 am

Your definition of neoliberal seems fine, but it’s completely inconsistent with the use of the word by followers of Bernie Sanders, who used it as a term of abuse for Hillary Clinton. Basically, they wanted to accuse her of being an American-style liberal- a social democrat- and not a socialist, which was certainly true. The neo- in front made it sound more sinister and international.


John Q 06.16.24 at 2:48 am

Something I don’t understand about Starmer is whether he is the representative of a dominant faction in British Labour or whether he has, in effect, staged an auto-golpe (self-coup), being elected on a leftish platform, then dumping it and stacking the leadership with compliant cronies. Do ordinary Labour members/voters welcome his shift to the right, or are they just unable to do much about it and focused on getting the Tories out?


John Q 06.16.24 at 2:51 am

Howard @18

The Clintons and the DLC were the embodiment of soft neoliberalism as I’ve defined it, replacing traditional US liberalism with a watered down and market-oriented version.


KT2 06.16.24 at 7:33 am

JQ @19 – “staged an auto-golpe (self-coup)”
“By January 2022, around three hundred members had been expelled by the party, often after complaints of anti-Semitism, and thousands of Mr Corbyn’s supporters had quit.
“Sir Keir had purged his party of its most toxic elements, and in doing so removed the biggest barrier to Labour being electable.”

“He [Stamer] now says he has no patience for people who complain about being ill when they are not very ill, and that the challenges he faces as a politician “pale into insignificance” compared with what his mother had to face.”

JQ- “… Starmer is whether he is the representative of a dominant faction in British Labour”

What do you need with factions when;
“In his first major speech since the general election was called, the Labour leader said he could be trusted because he had “changed this party permanently”.

JQ- “Do ordinary Labour members/voters welcome his shift to the right,”
Only 20% of voters are engaged. Members – not sure. The 300+ purged I doubt were welcoming. And he now has to show his fangs in government which will further erode ordinary Labour voters.

Stamer seems to me to be conflicted. A self proclaimed ‘socialist’. From Telegraph above: “… and helped set up a magazine called Socialist Alternatives, dedicated to an obscure branch of Trotskyism called Pabloism. It attacked Neil Kinnock’s “hopeless” economic programme and demanded a “radical alternative”. “At the time, Sir Keir had such liberal beliefs on law and order that one friend has recalled him saying he did not believe in imprisonment “for anything, ever”.  “He expressed similarly naive views when he was interviewed for pupillage at his first barrister’s chambers. Asked how he would defend a first-time shoplifter he said: “Isn’t all property theft?”

Some may say Stamer held “naive views”. I’d say he has undergone the conversion – “Says Winston Churchill said, “When you’re 20, you care what everyone thinks, when you’re 40 you stop caring what everyone thinks, when you’re 60, you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.”

Stamer is 61. So perhaps due to his late bloom, he won’t realise he is also to be consigned to the dustbin of history via a “staged an auto-golpe (self-coup)” with younger upcoming unconverted unrecognized factions and ‘socialists’. Or actual centrists.

And Stamer runs the risk of losing / hung parliment for a second term due to well funded Independents and a Janus like realization of the people that he actually has “no patience for people who complain about being ill when they are not very ill,”, qnd the Janus like switch face of his then electorally challenged factions.

And if the NHS is gutted he is toast imo. If, as he tried previously, to call another Brexit referendum, he may save face, and the UK from being just a financial clearing house, and much more.

Also when the time is right, the establishment (and hostile media) will have no problem doing ‘a Stamer’ as he did as DPP… “During the 2011 England riots, Starmer prioritised rapid prosecutions of rioters over long sentences, which he later thought had helped to bring “the situation back under control”.[33][34] “In February 2012, Starmer announced that Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, and his former wife, Vicky Pryce, would be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice in R v Huhne.” Wikipedia.

From an armchair. Any primary sources? And it seems really hard on the public to break any duopoly.


Chris Armstrong 06.16.24 at 8:32 am

@19. The Parliamentary Labour Party has been dominated by its right wing for decades, except for its experiment with Corbyn (who, recall, was never meant to win the actual nomination – that he did tells you that yes, the membership is much more left wing. And yes, they’re pretty disillusioned with Starmer, although still excited to get the Tories out)


Harry 06.16.24 at 9:55 am

Chris Armstrong is right the the Labour Party is normally (nearly always) dominated by its right wing (at the height of Bennism Tony Benn was unable to win the deity leadership for goodness sake). Corbyn didn’t expect or even want to win the leadership. Mark you, the current membership is much smaller than in the Corbyn years.

For what it’s worth, Starner started out in the far left and was very comfortable under Corbyn. The right didn’t have a candidate for the leadership in 2020, so supported Starmer by default (Long-Bailey was the left candidate and Nandy didn’t have a natural constituency). He’s done what he thought he had to do to win an election — but I’m sure he’s equally comfortable where he is. And he has been very lucky indeed. .


engels 06.16.24 at 10:05 am

Is there an anti-austerity party?

Tories: anti-austerity for pensioners
Reform: anti-austerity for natives
Labour: anti-austerity for management consultants


engels 06.16.24 at 10:55 am

Starmer’s defining political feature is his wraith-like formlessness: the vacuum where any convictions, personality or principles ought to be. He was as comfortable under Corbyn as a Nazgul riding through the shire. As DPP in the 2011 London riots he was locking people up for stealing ice creams. And Britain’s tax “burden” could go up a lot: it’s 36% (France’s is 52%).


Alan Peakall 06.16.24 at 12:00 pm

Harry: ITYM s/deity leadership/deputy leadership/. Perhaps the contemporary jibe that Michael Meacher was Benn’s representative on Earth was resonating there?


nastywoman 06.16.24 at 12:18 pm

but isn’t it… strange?….. that while on the continent (and in the US) the ‘Fremdenfeindliche’ Right-Wingers triumph and the Extreme Right Wingers are on the rise with emulating the philosophy of Hitlers ‘Mein Kampf’ not only in EU election –
the Fremdenfeindliche UK Conservatives and Nationalists are on ‘the edge of extinction’?!

How did that happened?

Is/was it (really) a reaction to the ‘Fremdenfeindlichkeit’ of Brexit?

Or – the ‘ten German Bombers’ are so ingrained in UK Culture that Brits NEVER would fall for Right-Wingers who kind of smell like (German) Neo Nazis – (even if they in France, Italy, Hungary or the or the Netherlands)?

is it just that the Torys were in power for too long and anybody who is sick of politics or politicians in general jut votes for CHANGE –


engels 06.16.24 at 12:59 pm

Yes it was a coup. I would never have voted for him but lots of well-informed, well-intentioned people did, unsuspecting he was a psychopathic liar (I didn’t suspect it either).


notGoodenough 06.16.24 at 1:49 pm

Doctor Science @ 16

Thank you for the kind response, and for your patience. I’ll try to elaborate a bit more – by necessity this will still be short (and not entirely correct), but hopefully it will explain things a bit better.

First, some things to keep in mind:
1) The UK voting system is First Past the Post (FPTP), which encourages tactical voting (and people voting against the party they want out, rather than for a party they might prefer but stands less of a chance of success). This serves to re-entrench the two main parties (Labour and Conservative) to such an extent that Labour may well wipe out the Tories this election whilst still be very unpopular themselves.

2) The UK’s political and media circles are basically one big club (and the average citizen is most definitely not in it). They largely have the same backgrounds, often are from the same class (and thus share similar interests), are frequently friends/relations/married to each other, and generally have similar experiences and world views. Left wingers, who are outside the club, will therefore face opposition from the majority of the UK’s media and its two main political parties (even if, nominally, they are part of one of them). This means that, consistently, the world views presented to people (politically and socially) are generally right wing to soft neoliberal – which creates certain social norms regarding what is thought to be possible and/or reasonable (and things which would prove embarrassing to notice are simply…just not talked about). This is compounded yet further by the revolving door between politics, media, and business – and while brown envelopes stuffed with cash are generally considered gauche, it is not unknown for politicians upon leaving politics to find employment in companies who were affected by their decisions while in power.

3) The two biggest parties, the Tories and Labour, essentially have had internal factions fighting for dominance. In the case of the Tories, this notably came to a head over Brexit (essentially Cameron thought he could unite the party by holding a referendum and gaining a majority support which would act as a mandate for his leadership – it…er…didn’t quite work out like that for him). In the case of Labour, the Labour right have enjoyed dominance since at least the Blair years (for various reasons a bit too complicated to get into right now), and after the left under Corbyn were defeated they seem to have decided that the threat of a mildly socialist PM is so great that they cannot afford for it to ever happen again and have been basically ousting as many of the Labour left who remain as possible through various means both fair and foul. The net result of this is that both parties have shifted rightward.

So, to try to address your comments a bit:

You say right-Labour has a “wish to replace the traditional union-based power base with wealthy donors a la the Tories”–so this power base has nothing to do with “voters”, then? And yet I thought one of the big advantages of your system of politics was that campaigning isn’t as continually & obscenely expensive as it is over here.

It is true that campaigning is not as obscenely expensive as in the US. However, for an aspiring Labour leader there are two options: (1) appeal to the left (which may be popular with a large section of your voting base, but will be exceptionally unpopular with many of your colleagues, the opposition, and the majority of the UK’s media) or (2) appeal to the right. The latter may not be popular with your voters (but hey, what are they going to do? Vote Tory?), but will be popular with the Labour right and (when the Tories have turned their brand so toxic that it is obvious they are going to lose) will also grant you a lot of soft handling from the majority of the press. So, if you are a right-leaning Labour politician with an eye the big chair (and a thought for your post-political career), it is clearly more attractive to appeal to the right and basically tell the left to either fall in line or risk another Tory government. This will alienate the traditional left base (young voters, unions, etc.), but probably enough of them will stick with you that you can afford to shed some (particularly if, like many of the Labour right, you employ the savvy political technique known as “lying through your teeth” to mislead them) – and thus you can focus on appealing to the right wing press and conservative voters (who are now looking for a socially acceptable version of conservatism) and the wealthy donors (who will compensate for loss in traditional support base fundraising).

So I instinctively assume that since the Tories are all about austerity & privatisation, Labour will be the reverse–in part because the voters will be saying “austerity is bullshit”. But they … aren’t? Or are they?

It is a good instinct, but basically the Tories are chasing Reform voters and Labour are chasing Tory voters, so arguments largely boil down to “who can enact conservative policies the best” (we were recently treated to the delightful spectacle of a debate in which Sunak and Starmer basically took turns in accusing each other of being too much like Jeremy Corbyn – from which you might extract a small degree of gallows humour, if that is your thing). Voters, by and large, do think austerity is bullshit – but due to FPTP their choices will mostly boil down to “right wing austerity with the Tories” or “neoliberal austerity with Labour” (and hope that the latter is a gentler form of austerity, or that Starmer will turn out to have been pretending to be right leaning just to get in to power and subsequently will suddenly rip his suit off to reveal a Che Guevara t-shirt underneath). It is a little more complicated than this, of course, but that is the nutshell (and the reason that voters are pretty apathetic about this election). This is why I think it will be interesting to see what happens on the micro scale – there are some non-Labour candidates who voters can support without worrying that it will facilitate the Tories remaining in power, and I think it will be instructive to see how popular they are.

Is there an anti-austerity party?

One with any real chance of power this election? Not really. However, as Labour has shifted right that does now leave a disaffected powerbase ripe for the picking. It will be phenomenally difficult for any left wing party to fill that gap (they will face all the issues that the Labour left did, plus lack “brand recognition”, and likely will be competing with other factions who have the same idea), but it might happen that various parties will shift in this direction. Whether this will be enough to change the course of events, or if we will be doomed to a continuous alternation between soft-neoliberal and far right conservative governments, will remain to be seen.

Fortunately, the left is famous for its ability to unify under one banner in order to achieve political goals, so no need to worry I’m sure


RobinM 06.16.24 at 6:44 pm

re Chris Bertram @ 9

a similar view—that Starmerism might prove to be a prelude to a surge to the populist right—is voiced by Kate Dove, co-chair of Momentum (which still hasn’t been banned by the Labour Party, thanks, no doubt, to some judicious foot shuffling), at the quasi-official Party site, Labour List (which also provides a whole lot of current stuff on the Party’s policies and personalities):


sherparick 06.16.24 at 7:54 pm

It is now a distant memory, and colored by distaste for Tony Blair and the Iraq War, but Blair basically put the Tories out of power for a generation with back to back parliamentary landslides in 1997 and 2000. It was the combination the Iraq War and the 2008-09 financial crisis that allowed Cameron to lead a Tories back, and only then in coalition with the Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg is an idiot).


RobinM 06.16.24 at 8:40 pm

re notGoodenough @ 29

what you say reminds me that I’m encouraging my Scottish friends and family to vote for anyone but Labour depending on which party’s candidate might defeat the Labour one. The Scottish vote won’t seriously affect the overall UK outcome, but it might provide a number of MPs willing to criticise a Starmer government.

PS. I’m not sure what Harry @ 17 is getting at when he says the Tories can compete in Scotland. Even the SNP’s confusion doesn’t seem like its opening the door to the awful Tories

and re nastywoman @ 27, it is just a matter of observation that Britain has become such a godawful mess under Tory rule that they’re going to in all likelihood be ousted for utter incompetence—

Also, in case you haven’t heard, Starmer’s Labour is now flag-waving nationalist


Alex SL 06.16.24 at 11:13 pm

Seeing that the discussion has turned a bit to Labour, one of the weirdest aspects of UK politics in the last few years is the discourse about Labour leaders. Don’t get me wrong, a leader not having a clear message, being perceived as too radical or too boring, or making a gaffe can absolutely make a difference between win or loss under generic circumstances. But in the last few years, Labour was never in the driving seat.

The public agenda was dominated by Brexit, which was the defining issue of the Tories, while Labour supporters were split ca. 1/3 for to 2/3 against on the question. The former means that unaffiliated voters motivated by either ensuring or thwarting Brexit would think primarily in terms of whether the Tories got a majority, not if they should vote Labour, specifically; the latter means that every non-waffling position a Labour leader takes on Brexit splits their core support and ensures defeat, and in a pinch, the waffling also ensure defeat. It was a lose-lose-lose position to be in. Conversely, in the short term, Brexit was a genius move for the Tories, because it turned out to absolutely guarantee them three election victories in a row. (With the caveat of no absolute majority in the second of these, and not so great in the long run, when the promises of zero downsides predictably turn out to be undeliverable.)

Let’s run through the elections, then.

2017 was discussed in terms of how Corbyn, who was painted as the second coming of Lenin because he wanted to slightly increase taxes on the wealthy, had a surprisingly good performance. But it wasn’t really what he did or promised to do, it was Remainers voting to ensure that the Tories would lose their majority to make Brexit more difficult. The only way Labour could have underperformed in that election would have been by coming out as strongly pro-Brexit.

2019 was discussed in terms of how Corbyn was so abysmal at politics that he lost at a historical scale even against the most ridiculous candidate the Tories had ever nominated. But apart from the fatal error of allowing an election to happen in the first place, it wasn’t his supposed ineptitude or supposed radicalism that decided the outcome, it was much of the electorate being fed up with years of Brexit paralysis and wanting the whole thing to be over (“get Brexit done”) so that one could return to some normalcy and deal with other issues again. And the natural Brexit party are the Tories. Thus there was no way for Labour to win this, because they could only have sharpened the choice by committing strongly to Remain and, again, that would have driven away 1/3 of their core supporters.

Now, 2024 will forever be discussed in terms of how awful Corbyn was, and look, if you just nominate a moderate centrist like Starmer and don’t actually do anything that your core supporters want you to do, you can win elections, and by a lot. But there is no way that Labour could lose this election, not because of their own message, but because the Tories have completely discredited themselves. I am certain this time, Corbyn would also have won an absolute majority, albeit perhaps not quite at the same wipe-out level.

One of the ironies here is that the same people who now praise Starmer’s political wisdom for being quiet on the damage caused by Brexit or on rejoining the single market or customs union blamed Corbyn for being too non-committal on Brexit in 2019 despite him at least being in favour of a customs union. Same tactical conundrum and same risk of splitting the party, but in only one case they hate the politician, so…

None of this means that Corbyn was great at messaging or anything, but he and his policies were not the determining factor in any of this.


Tm 06.17.24 at 10:07 am

A case study of what might happen when established center right parties implode would be Italy after 1990.

It is unfortunately true that voters are generally economically conservative and they hate raising taxes even when only the rich are affected. But if Starmer wins a clear majority, he doesn’t actually have to pay attention to such subtleties and it’s hard to believe that people would hold any tax increases against him in 2029 if he governs competently and delivers urgently needed investment in health, education, energy and other infrastructure. In particular if he manages to bring about noticeable improvements to the NHS, he should easily win a second term.

If he really is an ideologically committed austerian, as suggested above, well I don’t know what to say. It’s dumb economics and idiotic politics. He should ask Chancellor Scholz what happens when a government can’t govern because it can’t borrow and can’t raise taxes. The one advantage that the UK political system has is that the government isn’t shackled by a constitution and coalition partners.


engels 06.17.24 at 10:40 am

Afaics Labour’s plan to fix the NHS is more privatisation + compulsory supervised toothbrushing.


Harry 06.17.24 at 4:08 pm

“PS. I’m not sure what Harry @ 17 is getting at when he says the Tories can compete in Scotland. Even the SNP’s confusion doesn’t seem like its opening the door to the awful Tories.”

Only that I’m assuming Reform won’t go far in Scotland, where the Conservatives are currently the second party in the Scottish Parliament, and where when the SNP is strong a good number of unionists are willing to vote tactically against them in national elections (so the conservatives can get labour votes). Of course, that depends on the Scottish Tories having an independent identity and reasonable leadership (it currently still has the former, though seems not really to have a leader).


Alex SL 06.18.24 at 2:22 am


“It is unfortunately true that voters are generally economically conservative and they hate raising taxes even when only the rich are affected.”

This is one of the most puzzling aspects to me in politics, because it doesn’t seem difficult to figure out that one has to be very, very rich indeed before strong public services financed by high taxes become a losing proposition. The alternatives are either having a bit more money in one’s pocket but no or dysfunctional services (schools and universities, roads, public transport, police, army, national parks, health care, fire rescue, museums, waste disposal and sewage, research agencies, water supply, and the list could continue over at least half a page) or having those services put paying for them in fees. Not having any of this at all is unacceptable to everybody except the most deranged prepper, but paying for it in fees means that nearly everybody pays more, because even a flat tax like 30% across all income brackets is more progressive than a user fee, where a millionaire and an unemployed person both pay the same amount.

I assume that most people simply don’t ever try to work this through logically but merely go “taxes bad, I want to decide myself what to spend my money on” or “what if my taxes go towards bla-, um, undeserving people”, even if health care or university costs them twice as much in fees as it would have been in taxes.


John Q 06.18.24 at 3:29 am

sherparick “It is now a distant memory, and colored by distaste for Tony Blair and the Iraq War, but Blair basically put the Tories out of power for a generation with back to back parliamentary landslides in 1997 and 2000”

This was, of course, the context for the 2002 assessment I mentioned in the OP. If Blair had made better decisions on Iraq and the GFC, it might have turned out correct.


JoeInCO 06.18.24 at 5:52 am

I am wary of demographic arguments. I am still waiting for Texiera and Judis’ “Emerging Democratic Majority” 22 years after its publication. 2002..was that a coincidence?


Alan Peakall 06.18.24 at 8:13 am

Blair retired as PM on 27-June-2007 just before the GFC broke. He was Coolidge to Brown’s Hoover. That’s not to say of course that he should not have done far more to promote economic sanity in the run-up to the GFC. The conventional wisdom is that the GFC could have been even worse had Blair prevailed over Brown and taken the UK into the Euro, which might have happened if both 9/11 had not persuded Blair to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with America” rather than “take Britain to the heart of Europe” and the Conservative Party had been prepared to accept Ken Clarke as leader after their 2001 election loss.


novakant 06.18.24 at 8:57 am

Considering the fact that the psychotic right-wing UK press has just a few days ago plastered its front pages screaming “Labour wants to tax you to death!” – without a shred of evidence of course – it is completely understandable that Starmer is treading lightly. We’re also in the middle of a cost of living crisis so the middle class is likely to tell you to f off if you want to raise their taxes. If you can actually show that public services, which are terrible, are improving, they might be willing to rethink that a bit.

Considering the situation, it is somewhat encouraging that Labour has been mumbling, very guardedly I grant you, about both rapprochement with the EU and some flexibilty on tax. Baby steps.


engels 06.18.24 at 9:21 am

This is one of the most puzzling aspects to me in politics, because it doesn’t seem difficult to figure out that one has to be very, very rich indeed before strong public services financed by high taxes become a losing proposition.

People are addicted to junk consumerism at the expense of funding services they actually need and would benefit from. If only there was a standard policy for disincentivising self-harming behaviour…


engels 06.18.24 at 9:26 am

If National Highways spent as much on ads as BMW maybe things would be different.


engels 06.18.24 at 10:50 am

The good news is that the morons are in the minority by now (the bad news is that minority includes Starmer and Reeves).


Alex SL 06.19.24 at 12:25 am


The problem is that if Starmer doesn’t say he wants to do XYZ before the election, he has no mandate to do it after the election. I know a lot of people say that politicians always lie and then do what they want anyway, but that is just wrong on the evidence; many politicians do at least try to implement what they promised, they are humans just like everybody else. In the UK system, the additional complication is that there is a gentlepeople’s agreement that the house of lords, which is not majority but dominated by conservatives, shouldn’t block anything that is part of the government’s election mandate… but they have no qualms blocking anything that isn’t in there.

So, Labour has committed not to do anything that would materially improve the economy, so they won’t do anything like that, so the voters will be extremely disappointed five years from now that nothing has materially improved. Best case scenario is that they get extremely lucky through external factors falling out in their favour, but without at least single market membership I have no idea how that could even happen.

I am not saying centre-left never does anything useful these days. Scholz and Albanese are complete busts, and Clinton, Blair, and Schroeder made things actively worse through deregulation, but ObamaCare and Bidenomics did at least some good. But even at its best, even where it does some good, the centre-left doesn’t ever do anything sufficiently bold these days to address the deep problems we are facing: increasing inequality and job insecurity, unaffordable housing, media ownership by sociopathic oligarchs, biodiversity crisis, global heating. We are trundling along with the choice between one party that actively tries to make everything much worse and one party that either make things slightly worse or more or less manages the status quo until the other lot get in again and do the next round of cuts to infrastructure and services and dismantle attempts at a green economy.

This is what a civilisation in terminal decline looks like. I just wonder to what degree especially well-off voters simply don’t want to make the hard choices that may include using the tram instead of an SUV to save our society and more expensive DoorDash to reduce inequality, or to what degree centre-left voters are still in denial about how far the parties they are rusted onto have moved to the right. At least here in Australia there seems to be a lot of the latter, e.g., many Labour supporters who get angry when they fill out an online election compass and then see that it shows them most aligned with the Greens instead of Labour.


steven t johnson 06.19.24 at 4:11 pm

This is largely based on how politics works based on what I know about the US.

Politicians’ human desire to do what they promised to do doesn’t mean they will do what the majority or even plurality want, no matter what was “promised” in the general election. For one thing in a duopoly system, the parties are franchises of Ins and Outs including or even especially in most local politics. The commonplace, politics is always local, is commonplace because there’s a lot of truth to it. So far as I can tell though most localities are effectively one-party systems, with primaries being the final contest between factions.

Especially in low population density areas, the small total numbers of the lower orders and their geographical dispersion gives the local property owners considerable economic power. (The role of legal privileges and even extra-legal ones, like a corrupt police force “policing” poor people, is I suspect is shockingly ignored by and large.) Result: Rural areas are often controlled by conservatives (in a class sense) Suburbs tend to be geographical stratifications on the socioeconomic status level, you might even say suburbs can be treated as municipalities playing the same role as the upscale neighborhood within a city…if you don’t take this aspect as universal. Result: Suburbs are often controlled by property owners. Cities have concentrations of the unpropertied, hence these are often competitive, due to the power of solidarity. The bulk of conservative votes of course come from densely populated areas, despite the political prominence of rural areas. Result: Urban areas are often “blue” islands in a red state and the “blueness” of the state seems often to be the ratio of competitive urban to local oligarchies in rural and many or most suburbs.

The general result is that the Democratic Party, whose current brand aims to win the unpropertied, is competitive nationally, even to the point its won most of the national elections in terms of votes by larger margins still does not have political power commensurate to its votes. Due to the federal Constitution, which aims to limit majority power, the politically organized minorities have veto power. Even more, even relatively small special interests (like anti-abortion crusaders) can have effective political power out of all proportion. It doesn’t matter that most people’s everyday social values increasingly favor all manner of so-called woke things, albeit with great geographical variation and time lags. Areas of declining population tend to change such things more slowly, because values, society, are rotting along with the economy.

And structurally speaking, the lack of a programmatic party, the practical nature of the parties as mere franchise operations, ensures that individual politicians lack the capacity to know for certain what the mandate even is. Result: There are no effective mandates in general elections. And the relevance of political programs espoused by national parties is moot. (On a local level there is very little discussion of policy, everything tends to be reduced to an issue of different personalities.)

But the general is always preceded by the first election, which tends to be the donors’ election. Like the system in Iran, where the mullahs weed out unacceptable candidates, this first election is tremendously important. But this is precisely where the human desire of individual politicians to “keep their promises” turns into politicians ignoring or even betraying the general election mandate, which mostly nobody can even know. They are keeping their promises to their serious people, the donors, who as their friends are never imagined to be immature and petulant.

All of this is compounded by the inordinate power of the wealthy to influence the mass media, which is highly concentrated in ownership and whose customer base is rich people buying advertising. Equally, the wealthy personally or via political control have inordinate power to influence the academy’s contribution to policy formation. That function is served not just by direct dissemination of political conservatism, but by promoting obscurantism.

The upshot is that blaming the lower orders is simply wrong, however emotionally satisfying it may be. (To be fair, fits of temper can afflict anyone and if you’ve never been furious it often is because you haven’t been paying attention.) Equally, simple dismissal of politicians and journalists as personally corrupt, which pretends to be anti-politics, is also wrong. It is in my judgment anti-majoritarian, part of the problem, an illusory escape in self-congratulation by the wise guys onto the scam.

The persistent long run failure of purely political reforms, like Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, to change things politically while leaving property unchanged, suggests true renovation of society demands fundamentally changing property. By now refusing to countenance changes in economic arrangements (classes in the rational sense, not socioeconomic status sense) is demanding pursuit of a failed strategy. The individual motives for this hostility for change I can’t presume to assign, though I like everyone else tend to think having property or economic dependency of some sort often plays a role, what is true on average is not necessarily true of individuals.

How it works in other countries I can’t definitively say. I have noted that most foreign observers have very little problem in assigning control of local politics to caciques or oligarchs or similar terms, even as they never see such creatures in their own countries.


notGoodenough 06.20.24 at 8:18 am

As a general thought, hierarchical power with any degree of longevity surely, axiomatically, develops mechanisms of self-reinforcement – thus, many of the systems within established societies will serve to propagate the norms of that society rather than challenge them. Consequently, acting within the established framework will be unlikely to effect meaningful change – yet opposing the framework without a ready alternative seems unlikely to prove a fruitful path to tread. This is not to say that acting within the established framework is necessarily completely without point (maintaining the status quo, however offensive to one’s sensibilities that may be, is surely preferable to acceleration of decline – at least to some extent), but rather that it is probably the least and most trivial step towards liberation (and, in my view, it is necessary to be careful to avoid obfuscation of the realities of hierarchy, power, and dominance which will only hinder the emergence of a clear vision of full equality).

Atomisation and isolation are tools which help suppress collective action, and thus organisation is key to emancipation. Of course, it is important to ensure that organisation does not lead to its own hierarchical power entrenchment, but in principle – providing due care is exercised in ensuring appropriate mechanisms are systemically embedded – collaborative action remains the single most important and effective tool available to people (at the best case it can act to empower the populus, but even absent that it can still act as a counterbalance which protects its members). This is, of course, easier said than done – but the approaches and techniques which led to effective organisation in the past are still available to us today, even if the specifics have changed, And even though it would be wrong to understate the time and resources needed, in principle people can still work towards these goals should it be desirable (though many of the resources which it would prove useful to draw from initially are not necessarily easy to find, and certainly opposition by those in positions of power will be intense and unrelenting). Nevertheless, as a foundation for meaningful positive change in society, I think this is worth consideration and attention – while it is not unreasonable to feel despair at the size of the obstacles facing us, I am not yet convinced they are in fact insurmountable. But this is, of course, purely my personal opinion.


engels 06.21.24 at 7:14 pm


engels 06.21.24 at 8:23 pm


blockquote>A BILLIONAIRE who gave the Conservative Party £500,000 has given Keir Starmer a glowing endorsement on Newsnight. John Caudwell, the founder of defunct mobile phone retailer Phones4u, said on Tuesday that Starmer’s Labour – which he joined the same day – was in “complete alignment” with his “views as a commercial capitalist”. He said: “What Keir has done is taken all the left out of the Labour Party. “He’s come out with a brilliant set of values and principles and ways of growing Britain in complete alignment with my views as a commercial capitalist.”




engels 06.25.24 at 6:05 pm

Tragedy/farce: you decide
“The suspended Labour candidate Kevin Craig said he “deeply” regrets putting a bet on the Tories winning in the Suffolk constituency he is contesting.”


somebody who doesnt know 06.26.24 at 6:10 am

Can someone who knows give an example of (say) a postwar British party that had the strength of the Conservatives in (say) 2019, and then went extinct?


Harry 06.26.24 at 2:06 pm

Not postwar, but the Liberals won a landslide in 1906 (different rules, different electorate), and never again won a majority. Not sure extinction is the right word, and anyway the decline took 25 or so years. Complicated causes, including, obviously, the rise of the Labour Party.

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