The shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds's speech last night has received little attention. But it would be a big mistake for the Tories to ignore what Dodds had to say on the new direction she hopes to steer the Labour party in. Don't laugh, but in years to come, last night could be seen as a significant turning point for Keir Starmer's party.
For a start, the lecture was entirely free of sanctimony, which in and of itself marks a huge break with recent Labour history. Gone were blank attacks on 'austerity' or weepy complaints about the Tories being heartless; instead, Dodds put forward a case for why a social democratic approach to the economy would work in clear, clinical terms. The morality of the shadow chancellor’s argument was left for the audience to understand in the detail as opposed to being shoved down their throats. This aspect on its own made the speech refreshing; a centre-left manifesto on the economy that was high on content and free from pious platitudes.
The meat of the talk was that it framed borrowing and spending in terms of ‘value for money’, as well as the importance of long-term planning. The IFS and National Audit Office was name-dropped a fair few times. The essence of this was to pit the way the Tories would handle the economy against what Labour would do – an extension of Starmer’s ‘competence’ narrative against Boris Johnson. The attack on the Conservatives here was not ‘we’re good, they are evil’, but rather, ‘we’re good, they are rubbish’.
The lecture marks the definitive end of the Corbyn era. It is the clearest demonstration yet that the Labour party has given up – at least under Starmer – trying to flog the dead horse that is socialism and re-embraced social democracy again in real terms. There was no talk in Dodds’ speech about needing to overhaul the system or being in the stages of ‘late capitalism’. After years of the Labour party saying that all they are after is a little Scandi social democracy while simultaneously championing far left policy, Anneliese Dodds has laid out an economic path for Labour with genuine Nordic flavour.
Were this being done in the shadow of a second Trump term, Dodds’ speech might have felt different. However, not only has Trump not been re-elected, he has just alienated large portions of the American right with his actions since the election. We may be in for a prolonged Republican civil war that pits the Trumpists against the more traditional conservatives, leaving the field free for years of Democrat hegemony in America.
In other words, Labour is now travelling with the flow of western politics as opposed to swimming against it. I have read much lately about how the Tories splashing the cash makes things difficult for Labour; I think the opposite is true. If Labour can convince the electorate over the course of the next few years that their brand of spending would be more responsible and better thought out and executed, then they could completely destroy the Tories’ advantage on the economy. Johnson and Sunak will ignore this at their peril.
Another thing for Tory HQ to be mindful of is Dodds’ pitch to the business community. With both major parties committed to tax and spend over the coming years, Starmer could look more and more appealing to this audience. Although he is running a mile from promising any changes to the Brexit deal at present, everyone knows the chances of making relations with the EU more business-friendly have a better chance of happening under a Starmer-led government. Making an otherwise compelling case for Labour’s economic plans, and Dodds’ speech last night constituted a great start, could see a New Labour-like exodus of business from the Tories to Labour over the course of the next few years.
If an election were to be called tomorrow and I had to bet on one party to get a majority, it would be the Tories. Boris Johnson has a hold on a vast portion of the British electorate that those who dislike him cannot begin to understand. What's more, in getting the Brexit deal done without any ERG or Farage blowback, he has settled the great divide on the right of UK politics. Yet it is interesting that the polls have barely moved in the Conservatives' direction since the deal was struck.
Labour still has a long way to climb before it is trusted on the economy over the Tories. Yet Dodds's speech last night indicates that if Labour is willing to pursue its new agenda – and ignore the moaning about socialism, which will inevitably come from the left of the party – Boris could easily be toppled by Starmer. Tories would be wise to listen to what Dodds had to say – and realise that Labour has come a very long way in the last twelve months as a credible electoral threat.