5 days ago

Changing of the guards at Downing Street

Published :

Updated :

The enthusiastic crowd waited patiently under the morning sun before the gate of Buckingham palace to see the daily ritual of changing of the guards that was about to take place within the premises of the historic place. Unbeknownst to them another changing of the guards, of greater political import to the nation, was being choreographed inside the palace where the King would accept the resignation of the incumbent prime minister Rishi Sunak and anoint the newly elected labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. The symbolism of the  event unfurling outside the palace was not lost on the  commentator of BBC who promptly used the name of the familiar military ritual to drive home the significance of the more momentous one of transfer of political power being approved by the King as head of the state. Changing of the guards of the political realm, while not unexpected when an election is held  to decide which party or alliance of parties is to govern, rarely comes with such a roar of public approval ( or disapproval)  as has been the case this time around. The routine exercise of power by the electorate to choose the party to govern their affairs through a general election has been overwhelmed by the astounding results emanating from it that cannot be adequately described by the shop-soiled word ‘landslide’. The election has been more like an earthquake of high magnitude, pulverising the political landscape in the United Kingdom (UK) like it has not done before. Politics is about governance and public service and not playing charade by politicians, the electorate has seemed to have said in a stern voice

Pollsters and political pundits had so consistently been making forecast about an electoral victory by Labour in recent months that the only estimate waiting to be made was by how many seats the party would win over the Conservatives. It was beyond the wildest imagination of either party and the political analysts that the ratio of seats would be 412 to 121, a gaping difference of almost 300 seats. Twice in the past half century, a general election brought a sea change in British politics, the first in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher brought the Conservatives to power and the second in 1997 that sent Labour’s Tony Blair to No 10 Downing Street. But the results of the last general election have surpassed those two landmarks in British political history. The outcome has been not only a resounding victory for Labour but also a humiliating warning to the Conservatives to mend their ways.

Two years ago, when Rishi Sunak got the mandate from his party and was asked by the king to form government, he stood before the podium in Downing Street and bravely said, ‘ I have been asked  to fix’. He tried his best to fix the broken economy, smarting under near double digit inflation and anaemic growth that saw cost of living soaring. Through the prudent fiscal policy of his chancellor of exchequer Jeremy Hunt and tight monetary policy of the Bank of England (BoE), his government was able to tame inflation, bringing it down to near the target rate of 5 per cent. He saw this as a singular achievement and decided to go for the general election well before the deadline. It was a gamble that did not pay off with rewards in the voting booths. Rishi Sunak who stood before the podium at the same place in Downing Street last Friday after two years in office was a different person. In a sombre mood he humbly apologised and took the responsibility for electoral defeat. But what was more significant was his acknowledgement of the fact that through the votes the electorate had given vent to their ‘anger and disappointments’.

The Financial Times wrote in an article published before the election: ‘ No party in power for so long can escape a reckoning, and not since 1997 has any government left the national affairs in such a desperate state. Growth in the economy and real wages since 2010 have fallen well behind the historical trend since the war. The tax burden is near a post-1945 record, government debt is at its highest relative to output in 60 years. Yet public services are unravelling. Britain’s defences are depleted.’

Sound as the assessment of FT is, the overwhelming rejection of the Conservatives by the electorate speak more about their anger over the style of governance than its outcome in economic terms. Boris Johnson got a huge mandate from the electorate but he squandered it through various acts of indiscretions and unethical conducts. When he tried to avert parliamentary oversight of his Brexit Bill by calling its session off his subversion of due procedure did not please the constituency.  He and his colleagues were seen to follow double standard when social parties were arranged in violation of the quarantine rule during Covid outbreak. Intra-party fighting for power that led to resignation of  Boris Johnson  and Liz Truss  as prime minister and selection of Rishi Sunak as their successor  undermined public respect and trust. It was not Rishi Sunak as a person but the manner in which he was chosen by the party that shocked the public. The fact that he was the outcome of party in-fight made him vulnerable to criticism. He did not appear to have mastered control over the party at any stage during his tenure as prime minster. The electorate was aghast and became wary of electing a party mired in bickering and sleaze. By prioritising   management of fractious party politics over governance, the Conservative party wrote itself off from power. The election result has been the denouement of its exercise in self- inflicted injury.

The mood and the underlying significance of the verdict given by the electorate has not been missed by Sir Keir Starmer, the new prime minister. In his first speech in office he spoke of the urgent need for government to bring back delivery of public services and to win public trust. ‘Trust’ was mentioned more than once in the context of ‘renewal’/’rebuilding’ of the country. The new prime minister thus appears to have set his priorities right at the start, keeping in view the need and mood of the public. The Labour government under his stewardship can be expected to be wary about both the content and manner of governance .The previous government had miserably failed short in these.

The Labour party under Sir Keir Starmer can be said to be better placed to govern because of its preparation for the task while in opposition. It is familiar with the problems facing the country and has already crafted a strategy that straddles idealism and pragmatism. Five years ago when Labour was under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn its members were wedded to hard-left ideology, hankering after the interventionist state of 1950s. Sir Keir Starmer has repeatedly said, both before and after the election, that his party has changed. Both the Labour and Conservative party, infected by different strains of populism, deserted the centre, the former going to the extreme left and the latter opting for far right. Through his avowal of ‘change’ Sir Keir Starmer has swung back to the centre of the political spectrum. But in its zeal to distance itself from the hard- left ideology espoused by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party may have become too circumspect and reformist. The desire to be less ideological should not deter it from its core values of social justice of providing a reasonable standard of living for everyone. For this if his government has to tax the rich at a higher rate there should not be any hesitation. The Labour party cannot distance itself from the historic links with the working class. Its sympathy with labour unions can be balanced with the interests of the wider public. With a prudent fiscal policy based on progressive income tax, it can find funds to spend on broken public services including National Health Service (NHS).

The party has rightly put revitalising growth at the centre of its programme which the new government should strive to achieve in combination with equity. The pledges to reform the planning system and devolve more power to regional authorities will be a spur to growth and improve decentralised infrastructure development. Labour’s manifesto is based on objective conditions and free from ideological overhang. Sir Keith Starmer and his team should be able to deliver the services that their party has promised. But to do that effectively and sustainably his government must build public trust in politics. Here the style of governance will be as important as the programmes implemented and services delivered.

[email protected]

Share this news