Britain seems in a strange mood as 2023 blearily begins. One of the worst periods of peacetime crisis in our modern history grinds on. Frighteningly, it is spreading into more and more areas of life that we’re used to thinking the state and business have largely under control. One of the world’s richest countries, even after the economic calamities of Tory rule, has in many ways become dysfunctional.
Yet the response from voters seems complex and relatively muted. There is fear – please don’t let me need a hospital – and frustration at how the stoppages and shortages are dragging on. There is disbelief at the country’s accelerating deterioration; but also fatalism, a feeling that Britain was due a fall after years of cost-cutting, complacency and overindulgence. There is exhaustion at the sheer length of the disruption; and scepticism about the ability of any politician to end it. But there is less overt anger than might reasonably be expected. Unlike the early 1980s, or the early 2010s – like now, both times when Tory policies were doing immense social damage – Britain is not rioting. At least, not yet.
Voters have deserted the Conservative party in the opinion polls, it is true. Support is between a third and a half lower than it was at the last election. But while this fall has produced a big lead for Labour, beneath the surface shift the polls suggest there is still a lot of flux and confusion. When YouGov asked people last month who would be the best prime minister, 39% said they were not sure, 25% said Rishi Sunak, and only 32% said Keir Starmer, despite his increasingly confident tenure as Labour leader.
With possibly two years still to go until the next election – a long time in our eventful politics – a Labour government, let alone one that solves some of the country’s problems, remains quite abstract and distant for many voters. They sense that the Tories are on their way out, but they also appreciate that before that finally happens the current crisis may well get worse. A small but growing sense of anticipation about more competent and principled government under Starmer coexists with larger fears about the present and the immediate future.
How might Labour – or perhaps less foreseen political forces – navigate this hugely unsettled period? Given the breadth and depth of the current crisis, and the long accumulation of its causes, at least some of the turmoil may well continue past the election and deep into the next government. If any politician can produce some appealing and effective solutions to Britain’s suddenly sharp decline, they could be in power for a long time. This may be why, in a speech on Thursday trailed as promising “a decade of national renewal”, Starmer said Labour would introduce “a completely new way of governing”.
There can also be more cynical responses to national crises. Recently, Boris Johnson has begun to drop heavy hints that he could act as a national saviour. In a new year message delivered in his most drawling, charming mode, he said he was “confident that things will get better” for Britain in 2023, “lengthening our lead as the best place on Earth”. It’s easy to find this optimism absurd and offensive, coming from the person responsible for so many of our current disasters. Yet Johnson has made a career out of enough people believing his promises. Unless Sunak’s low-key and disengaged premiership wakes up, it would be foolish to rule out an attempted Johnson comeback.
But the anti-crisis politicians with most potential may be outside their party, given how associated the Tories are with the chaotic status quo. The relentless Nigel Farage, the increasingly popular rightwing populists of Reform UK, or perhaps some new, millionaire-backed reactionary movement: all could use Britain’s ongoing emergencies to their advantage. In the mid-70s, an economic crisis less severe in its social effects than today’s produced a toxic flowering of new far-right groups, until Margaret Thatcher’s radicalisation of the Tories took these groups’ members and impetus away. Given that much of our media is even more rightwing and at least as panicky about the state of the country as it was in the 70s, a would-be messiah from the fringes of the right might find plenty of backers.
Starmer lacks messianic qualities. Unlike Tony Blair at the equivalent stage of his Labour leadership, in the mid-90s, Starmer can’t use personal charisma to suggest that a government led by him would be fresh and dynamic. Nor does Starmer have Blair’s advantage of only having to devise solutions for a relatively contained national crisis. In the mid-90s, public services were struggling after years of Tory underfunding, but the economy was growing and many voters were feeling quite upbeat, ready to believe Labour when it said that “things can only get better”.
The public mood is different now. And while the Blair era is clearly an influence on Starmer – from his use of Gordon Brown and David Blunkett as advisers to his shadow ministers’ revival of Blairite strategies such as being “tough on crime” and “reforming” public services – Starmer’s policy proposals and rhetoric increasingly suggest that he would go further than New Labour in trying to change the country. He feels he has no choice. As he summed up today’s Britain at the last Labour conference: “We can’t go on like this.”
He still has a careful, hair-shirt side as a politician, warning almost with relish that a Starmer government would have to “make very difficult choices”. But the state of the country is simultaneously forcing him to be more expansive. This expansiveness is not just about winning the election. If a Starmer administration produces policies that are too small for the scale of the crisis – what he calls “sticking plaster politics” – his carefully acquired reputation for competence won’t last long.
It’s also possible that he is finding being bolder quite exciting – more so than the miserably tentative “constructive opposition” of his leadership’s first phase. That a typically cautious Labour leader could end up being a conduit for public dissatisfaction with the country the Tories have created, and an architect of whatever replaces it, still feels quite an unlikely outcome. But we live in strange times.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist