Why I don’t like Partygate


I understand where the campaign comes from. I think back to the start of February, and the one effective speech of Keir Starmer’s leadership. “Funerals have been missed, dying relatives have been unvisited. Every family has been marred by what we have been through … By routinely breaking the rules he set, the prime minister took us all for fools. He held people’s sacrifice in contempt.”

Let alone anyone else, those words struck a chord with me. As I’ve written here before, in spring and summer 2020, my own father was dying. I accepted that to keep other people safe, I had to leave my father isolated. And then to know that, while all that was going on, Johnson and his chums were parting – that rankles.

The idea of a caste of leaders demanding sacrificies from the little people, while making no sacrifices themselves – that offends.

I get the arguments: if Johnson were to get away with this, do you think he will feel a moment’s scruple next time? For much of the past five years, it has felt like Britain was being fast-tracked to becoming one of those countries that gets referred to euphemistically as a “managed democracy”, with a tame media, purged public institutions, so that voting becomes an unwelcome public duty. If we can’t stop Johnson now, when will we?

The problem is that, in relation to the Conservatives, Labour has the power to flatten every other issue in politics to acheive its intended goal. This isn’t bad in itself, this is how democracy works – it’s how you acheive the majorities necessary for lasting change. The party speaks to the left and tells us that, in order to protect the asylum seekers, to stop cuts in universities, to create an opening for the unions, you have to vote Labour.

In that context, how you defeat your opponents matters.

Because of its privileged role as the only alternative part of government in a first-past-the-post election system, Labour creates a story for the nation. By posing the alternative to Johnson as an administration of leaders who will obey the rules, what Starmer’s Labour makes impossible is the idea that the rules themselves are wrong and need to be rewritten.

Every voter knows in their heart how a Starmer leadership would operate. In relation to the universities, if changes to the student debt system require graduates to pay £5,000 a year merely to keep their debts where they are at, then those are the rules. Labour is tellling us now, and will tell us again in government, that you cannot change them.

Betting your future as a political party on the popularity of on rule-keeping means – what we are seeing already – a pitch to that part of the electorate which wants more policemen, more police guards, more immigration officers.

To my mind, this is bad and self-defeating psephology. Labour strategists will tell you that there is a significant blue-collar constituency which loves rule-keeping. But for every voter of that sort you gain, you lose another voter whose experience of life is of petty officialdom (the bullying PE teacher, the social worker who watches your families but leaves the middle-class family alone).

A left worthy of the name has to have a space for a broader emotional repetoire. It needs to include protesters (i.e. rule-breakers). There also needs to be a space in politics for people whose attitude towards ordinary rule-breaking (here, I don’t mean Johnson but ordinary criminality) is not “lock them up and throw away the keys”, but understanding and forgiveness.

And, even if I was wrong on how this politics will shape who votes, this approach is still wrong because it is bad in principle. It means that, in relation to the Climate Crisis, Labour is going to the polls demanding more effective policing – injunctions to stop climate protesters. The world is burning and Labour is telling motorists to fill up their petrol tanks.

That’s the problem with Partygate. It weakens the Conservative’s only popular leader. But, in return, it makes a pledge to the electorate that of all the things that need to change, none will

One response »

  1. Another thing I’ve always thought regarding the student loans is that knowing they will have to pay it back over a certain pay threshold encourages graduates to do low paid jobs because what’s the point of being paid ‘well’ if you then effectively have to give half of it away! I’ve seen this gross exploitation of graduates in low paid jobs in my own family

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