Who’s the Better Manager?
Someone pointed out that the biggest lasting legacy of the Corbyn-McDonnell project, from when it ran the Labour Party, could well be its influence on Rishi Sunak and the Conservative government’s economic policy response to COVID-19.
The ex-leader and ex-shadow chancellor called for massive state intervention in the economy and substantial assistance to industry and workers. The government would borrow about £400 billion in 2020 to make it happen. For comparison, the extra spending commitments in Labour’s 2019 general election manifesto totalled £80 billion.
Call it the Overton Window in action if you like, but Corbyn and McDonnell weren’t trying to seem relevant, they were just being relevant. They laid out an alternative course of action to that of the government, and the government was forced to respond. In defiance of Corbyn and McDonnell’s critics, it seems they may well have; ‘Won the argument.’
With Keir Starmer and the centrist takeover of the Labour Party, we see what the desperate need of seeming relevant, rather than of actually being relevant, looks like in the form of ‘managerial politics’.
“What difference as an MP have you actually made to people’s lives?” It’s a good question to ask any MP, and it can be a hard one to answer — especially if you’re an opposition MP.
In American politics, separation of powers means the votes and actions of an individual senator or congressperson, can at times, be pivotal or at least of some significance. But in British politics, the legislature and executive are combined, so if a government has a big enough majority in the House of Commons, all that matters is what the Prime Minister thinks and wants.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Prime Ministers have to keep an eye on their own cabinet members and MPs but they rarely have to worry about the opposition, except in terms of the next general election and that can be years away.
In the United States, a relatively unknown congressperson of either party can add an amendment to actual legislation and ‘make a difference’, but in British politics, it can be difficult for a government MP to influence legislation or actual policy, and it’s virtually impossible for an opposition MP.
Even the leader of the opposition can be impotent in actually affecting change. They can ask questions in parliament and table debates, but they can’t beat the maths of a government majority.
They can apply pressure of course and here we see the starkly different approaches of Corbyn and Starmer. Corbyn advocated a different approach to what government policy should be.
Starmer on the other hand, doesn’t fundamentally challenge the government’s approach. He’s merely trying to show he would be a better manager than the current one.
Rather than proposing actions based on an alternative set of ideas (an ideology you could call it) of how society can be best organised, with ‘managerial politics’, you see a competition to be the best, most competent manager. Of course, this competition to be the best manager is just as much an ideology as any other, it’s just presented as non-ideological — as beyond ideology itself.
All this results in the opposition now trying to pre-empt government decisions, by a couple of weeks if possible but sometimes by just a day or even hours.
When you have a government like this one, where often inevitable decisions are put off to the very last second of the very last minute, it can make an opposition look prescient, even competent, but it just looks like that.
The Liberal Democrats sometimes send out an email or press release pointing out that a recent policy decision of the government was in fact based on something from a working paper the Lib Dems had mentioned in an obscure policy paper from 25 years ago. There’s no link between the two because one didn’t cause the other.
The vague statements of Keir Starmer or Labour shadow cabinet members aren’t influencing government decisions, they are merely forecasting them. If it were by months or years, that would be one thing, but sometimes it’s by less than a day. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has taken the role of a news organisation rather than that of an alternative government.
None of this has any effect apart from dulling any criticism (if there is any at all) of the governments’ actual decisions.
Boris Johnson and the government aren’t seriously worried about a Keir Starmer or Labour Party who aren’t challenging their fundamental approach to the COVID-19 crisis or to anything else.
No one in a few years is going to remember Labour pre-empting the government by a week or two on a decision. People are barely paying attention now.
And if the very worst thing happens, from the Conservative’s point of view, and they do lose the next election. So what? They will be replaced by a Labour leadership that has signed up to essentially the same idea of how society should be run. This ‘B team’ is an alternative government that merely keeps the Tories’ seat warm until they get back into power and be trusted to not rock the boat too much until then.