Are the last obstacles in the way of a comfortable Labor victory in the next election being swept away? The dirty little secret of British politics is that there is now a great deal of consensus on most big political issues between the two main parties: the differences lie mainly in the details.
The most recent citadel to fall is what might be called the cultural issues of immigration and national identity. Labor seems to be flirting, again, with Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour, the left-in-economics/right-in-culture combination, which was also the mood music of the 2019 Conservative blue-collar election.
Democracy is getting its way, and its magical force field is forcing Labor to pretend that it is not, down to its bones, a party of Liberal grads, while trying to win back those small-c Tory voters who the conservatives snatched them up. about Brexit.
On national identity, the party has already sung God Save the King and Keir Starmer rarely appears far from a Union Jack. It has also lagged behind the rather harsh version of Brexit that ended up producing the political setup of 2019.
And now on immigration Starmer and Stephen Kinnock, the party’s spokesman on the issue, are beginning to sound more restrictive than the current government. Starmer tells the CBI today that immigration should not be used as a substitute for investment in training British workers or machinery and technology to improve productivity.
The current government has been saying similar things since 2019 and was, in part, the rationale for ending free movement (although the picture was briefly clouded by the Truss-Kwarteng issue).
However, the record of UK employers on training and investment in general is still pretty dire and the new immigration system is so liberal that almost two thirds of jobs in the UK economy are actually classified as highly skilled and potentially subject to a work visa.
So far, all Starmer and Kinnock are really doing is backing the government’s immigration policy, and indeed backing it against demands for more liberalization by employers and Treasury (the most powerful lobby of all to keep high immigration).
That’s a start. To be fair, Kinnock has sounded even more restrictive than the government in calling for the return of the resident labor market test, which requires employers to check that a British resident is unable to do a job before bringing someone in from abroad. He also sensibly wants identification cards for asylum seekers.
Words are cheap. Remember Gordon Brown’s cynical and unachievable promise of ‘British Jobs for British Workers’? But words are all the oppositions they have. And Starmer surely has room to go even further on immigration and related issues.
Thanks in part to the fact that ending free movement hasn’t brought down the overall numbers and that the government has talked tough but done nothing to stop the Canal ships, the government’s position on immigration has slumped among voters.
So why not promise that a Labor government would make the current liberal regime for skilled migration more restrictive over time and set up special training regimes for jobs on the Shortage Occupation Lists (if a job is on the list, you can bypass immigration restrictions)?
Starmer currently appears to be the master of everything he examines within the party and is supported by his inner circle of Deborah Mattinson and Claire Ainsley, both of whom have Blue Labor leanings.
Yet that left economics/right culture sweet spot of modern politics, what one might call the ‘missing majority’, is popular with voters but has surprisingly few friends with MPs and activists on either side. The Tories don’t like the left on economics and many are ambivalent about the right on culture too, with Labor mainly hating the latter.
Does Starmer have the strength to really test his party discipline and start rolling back the so-called ‘wake-up’ issues? And what about those Canal ships? Of course, everyone would like a return agreement with France. But since it seems unlikely to happen, some kind of relocation system that stops people from reaching this country, but leaves them safe and comfortable in Rwanda or elsewhere, is the only answer.
If, as seems likely, the European Court of Human Rights rules against the government on the relocation, whose side will Starmer take? If you back the current government, you can almost guarantee that you will form the next one.
The post Has Keir Starmer found the sweet spot in British politics? he first appeared on The Spectator.