The Guardian view on the general election 2024: a Labour victory would be a reason for hope | Editorial

The quirk of elections is that they tend to be swung by the public voting against, rather than for, a party. The sentiment is often either to kick one party out of power and give another a chance, or to re-elect the incumbents for fear of the alternative. In 2019, voters stuck with the devil they knew. This time, polls suggest that the Conservatives will be dumped from office. Their removal cannot come a moment too soon.

The Tories don’t deserve to win. After 14 years in power, they are a shambles. The original sin was austerity. But the precipitating crisis of this government was when voters were told that leaving the EU with the thinnest of deals would be good for them. Nothing could have been further from the truth. From the Pandora’s box of Brexit flew the furies of conspiracy, dishonesty, government abuse and executive overreach. It has been five years of unremitting cruelty and chaos. Starved public services and a miserly welfare state have seen life become poorer, nastier, more brutish and shorter. The right’s obsession with putting the state at the service of the market is destroying councils and universities, and spewing sewage into rivers.

The country has been exhausted by constant drama and is thoroughly disconnected from Westminster. Britain has had five prime ministers in eight years. The Conservatives can blame no one but themselves for their handling of the pandemic: incompetence, rule-breaking and cronyism bred political distrust and a shift towards populist rightwing politics. Liz Truss’s mercifully short premiership destroyed her party’s reputation for economic competence. With such a record, the Tories could stand unopposed and still come second.

A Labour landslide would suggest a watershed moment. But based on the party’s manifesto, no such transformation is currently on offer. Labour has climbed out of the crater of its 2019 defeat, and it stands on the brink of power with some eye-catching policies. On the environment, workers’ rights and housebuilding, it signals a break with the past, and a very welcome desire to save capitalism from its failures and excesses. Its most popular policies are interventionist: banning junk food and creating a publicly owned green energy company. How refreshing to hear that government programmes and stronger trade unions make economies more productive and equitable.

Sea change in politics

And yet, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour has so far defined itself more by what it is not than what it is. In its gut, the party thinks that idealism and big ideas kept Labour out of power, and that it is better off without them. Electorally, the party is right to dedicate itself to defeating the Tories. But it is wrong for ideological reasons to want to do the same to its left wing, which fights for equality and protecting human rights. The intense factionalism caused avoidable messes over candidate selection. This confrontational approach contrasts with Sir Keir’s timidity over Gaza. Unsurprisingly, many progressive voters are disillusioned.

People don’t vote for abstractions. They vote their hopes and their fears, and they tend to see those in concrete terms. If Labour wants voters to repose hope in it, then the party needs to spell out its ambitions. Labour may have managed expectations down to such a degree that it’s bound to exceed them. But the party has not so far had a conversation, which involves listening as well as talking, with the public over its plans. Without winning over the country through argument, the era-defining social reforms of Labour’s 1945 government would never have been thought of, much less accomplished.

A sea change in political thinking is needed to deal with the coming crises of economic stagnation, an ageing population, political polarisation and the climate emergency. Some of this can be found in the manifestos of the parties furthest from power. There is backing for electoral reform, necessary for the coalition-building conducive to better government. The Liberal Democrats make an excellent case for a more redistributive state. The Greens argue that the climate emergency needs a heretical response to economic orthodoxy. The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru seek to rejoin the EU.

Calmness and confidence

Labour is not the only political force for progressive change at this juncture. But it is the only party to rival the Tories for executive power. While the SNP has often provided Westminster’s most effective opposition, the creeping crisis of the British state would be better handled with more Scottish Labour MPs. The same reasoning applies in Wales. A greater number of Liberal Democrat and Green MPs would help Labour not to lose its nerve in the face of economic injustice or rightwing appeals to base instincts. Splitting the left-leaning vote risks another Tory victory. The public must vote tactically against a deeply unpopular government.

The Conservatives and Labour have made economic growth central to the political agenda without explaining where it will come from in an unstable world. Both parties should remove the straitjacket of their fiscal rules. Otherwise, spending cuts will be baked into policymaking. Throttling green investment with austerity won’t meet the challenge of global heating: the world beyond the goals of the Paris agreement looks frightening. There is very little time left to avoid a climate catastrophe. Unlike the Tories, Labour understands that an accelerated green transition is a necessary act of shifting from the past towards the future.

The party’s poll lead has induced a rush to place Sir Keir in historical perspective before he actually makes history. That may be because people are yearning for the “change” of Labour’s campaign rhetoric. It is what the country needs. The greater the inequality, insecurity and sense of injustice, the more vulnerable democracies are to capture by ­rightwing demagogues. Imagine the dread of waking up to Rishi Sunak winning. Labour’s vision is calming rather than exciting. Sir Keir may not be inspiring, but he does inspire confidence. He offers compassion, where a lack of it has become a matter of principle for the Tories.

Lurking in Labour’s manifesto is a plan to give ordinary people opportunity, security and dignity. Bliss in this dawn to be alive? Maybe not quite, but viewed amid the debris of the last decade, Labour’s putative parliamentary majority seems an almost unimaginably hopeful starting point. To create a more equitable society, power must be in the hands of politicians prepared to shape the country that we want to see. That is why the Guardian would vote, with hope and enthusiasm, for Labour to lead Britain to a better future.

The Guardian