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Why Rachel Reeves Prefers a Tory Government

Rachel Reeves' admission that she's 'pleased' Jeremy Corbyn isn't prime minister was a betrayal of all those who campaigned for a Labour victory – and the policies they fought for.

Labour leader Keir Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves attend day three of the Labour Party conference on 27 September 2021 in Brighton, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

At this point, it isn’t exactly news that right-wing Labour MPs actively worked to prevent a socialist Labour government from coming to power when Jeremy Corbyn was leading the party, but it is at least useful to have further confirmation (in addition to all the leaked WhatsApp messages, that is). So step forward shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, who declared—when asked in a Times Radio interview last week whether Corbyn would have made a bad Prime Minister—that she was ‘pleased that he’s not prime minister’.

Given the 174,000 Covid deaths the Tories have already presided over, plus the renewed assault on working-class living standards—euphemistically described as a cost of living crisis—for which they’re responsible, there must be a fair few people in the country at large wondering if things could really have turned out any worse had a Corbyn-led Labour government been in power. But evidently, the Labour right has no such qualms, now that it has re-established its deadening grip on the party for the foreseeable future.

Again, none of this comes as a surprise. It wasn’t as if the Labour right’s wrecking campaign was any great secret; they practically did it in plain sight. But it is worth stopping to reflect on how unprecedented that four-and-a-half-year campaign was; there’s really nothing comparable to it in the 120-year history of the Labour Party. All the Blairite cant we used to hear about ‘the people who need a Labour government’ soon fell by the wayside when its petty privileges and career prospects appeared to be in jeopardy.

Reeves also indicated—in something which will, it goes without saying, come as news to precisely nobody—that there was no way for Corbyn to regain the Labour whip: ‘after not just the antisemitism… but also because of Mr Corbyn’s views and language on NATO’. The suggestion that opposition to NATO rules you out of membership of the Parliamentary Labour Party is something new: the anti-imperialist tendency in the PLP has always been a minority one, but it has at least been largely tolerated (even if only begrudgingly) up to now.

The bottom line is that this continued ritual humiliation, with shadow cabinet members, even now, touring the Murdoch media (and anyone else who’ll have them) to badmouth Corbyn—and the Labour left in general—is intended to serve as a signal to the British establishment: namely that Keir Starmer’s defanged Labour Party won’t threaten any vested interests at home or abroad. The gutless, toothless, cap-doffing Labour so many had come to know and loathe during the New Labour years appears to be back with a vengeance.

It was in character with this general strategy of capitulation that Reeves also unveiled a new policy. Reeves claimed that a future Labour government would abolish non-dom status, but a quick look at the fine print gives the lie to this. Rather than scrapping non-dom status outright and making the super-rich pay their taxes in Britain—which was a 2019 Labour manifesto pledge—Labour’s new ‘temporary resident tax regime’ will instead reduce the existing period from fifteen years to five.

This is Starmerism in a nutshell: a little tweaking here and there, but nothing to seriously threaten elite interests or that might put the wind up the rich. But then, having driven so many members away and having done so much to alienate trade unions, Starmer can hardly afford to risk upsetting them. And sure enough, Starmer’s Labour appears to be redoubling its efforts to suck up to wealthy individual donors—and the key quid pro quo for the support from this quarter is that any genuinely transformative policies have to go out the window.

Needless to say, that won’t be too much of a sacrifice for Starmer and the shadow cabinet—because after all, they aren’t the ones who need transformative policies to better their lives after years of austerity and neglect. And with the Tories in self-inflicted disarray, it might just work. Labour has established a clear lead in the opinion polls—albeit driven by revulsion towards a decadent Tory Party rather than any actual enthusiasm for whatever Labour has in mind as an alternative—and so big business once more has an interest in buying influence.

But it would be foolish to expect that any party reliant on the patronage of the wealthy will actually change the face of British society, bringing about the kind of deep, structural transformation which is so desperately needed. At most, there’d be some technocratic tinkering, with some of the sharper edges of Tory misrule blunted a little. Any progressive gains that might be made would be liable to evaporate almost as soon as the next economic crisis struck, as was the case with New Labour after thirteen years in government.

New Labour could, for a time, skim of some of the proceeds of the financialised boom of the 1990s and 2000s, channelling it into social programmes (though, on the flip side, with those social programmes came increasing marketisation and disciplinarianism). A government led by Starmer, with Rachel Reeves as his chancellor, wouldn’t be coming to office in such relatively benign conditions, but would instead be faced with economic stagnation and mounting crises; crises with which it would surely be ill-equipped to deal.

As Oliver Eagleton writes, Starmerism offers none of the chirpy optimism and tepid reformism of early New Labour, with all of the curtain-twitching authoritarianism and spite of its later years. With the Tories seemingly self-immolating, it may well be that capital’s B-team is given a run out. But a Labour government with Starmer as prime minister and Reeves as chancellor would be cowardly and conformist both at home and abroad, and those crying out for social change—change for the better, that is—won’t get it from them.