Would a Labour supermajority really be bad for democracy? Rory Stewart on why opposition is vital | Crooked Media
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July 01, 2024
Pod Save the UK
Would a Labour supermajority really be bad for democracy? Rory Stewart on why opposition is vital

In This Episode

Counting down the last five days until the election results come flooding in, the Conservative Party is still blowing themselves apart from the inside. Why has the Tory campaign been such a clusterfuck and should we care if they implode? Would a Labour supermajority be good or bad for democracy as a whole?


To discuss these points, Nish and Coco are joined by Rory Stewart – hearing what he thinks on both the future of the Conservative party, and the future of British democracy. Now known for hosting the “The Rest is Politics” podcast with former Labour spin-doctor Alastair Campbell, Rory explains why he might return to politics – even going for the top job.


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Coco Khan Guys. Finally, after what feels like an eternity, it’s less than 144 hours until the election results start pouring in.


Nish Kumar Funnily enough, we’re anticipating less than 144 seats for the Conservative Party too. I’m Nish Kumar.


Coco Khan And I’m Coco Kahn, and on this special episode of Pod Save UK, we’re checking in with one of the most famous former Tories, Rory Stewart, to explore the future of the Conservative Party and the future of British democracy.


Nish Kumar The Conservative Party is tearing itself apart. Polling is in the toilet. The Gamble Gate betting scandal has cost them two candidates in safe seats, and has cost them far more in terms of their national image. And all eyes are on Rishi Sunak as the postmortem recriminations begin.


Coco Khan But of course, the failure of this government doesn’t rest solely at the feet of Sunak. I’m sure we have not yet forgotten the 2019 election and that architect of disaster, Boris Johnson.


Nish Kumar I think the most telling thing about the last 14 years of conservative rule is how little of its achievements Rishi Sunak is able to trumpet. You know, the stagnation of the economy, the way that Brexit has been handled, and then you get into the kind of, you know, absolute shit show of Johnson’s time as prime minister. And then and then on top of that, I think a point where I thought it was not possible for trust in the Conservative Party to plummet any further. Liz Truss kind of Oppenheim the economy. And now we’re in a position where essentially Rishi Sunak is sort of trying to argue that the public should vote for him based on the things that he’s done in the last two years and disregard the previous 12 years of conservative rule. It’s hard to know where the rot starts, but we’re definitely in a situation that the Conservative Party’s alienated. So many different sections of this country, including bits of the country that I never thought of everyday, you know, bits of middle England, bits of the former Tory stronghold that’s known as the Blue Wall. Even millionaire businesspeople. He genuinely is quite extraordinary. The amount of different sections of the country that the Conservative Party is managed to alienate.


Coco Khan Well, I mean, they are openly now a party for the rich. They are hell bent on rolling back multinational commitments. And they keep saying March it like human rights are lame. Yeah. So it’s been a bit of a clown show.


Nish Kumar Well, for a perspective on the clown show, for someone who, at least for a section of it, was inside the big 12. We’ve had a conversation with Rory Stewart. We invite you to enter it with an open mind. Because as the right reforms, no pun intended, it’s vital that we hear from voices across the spectrum arguing against populism.


Coco Khan Joining us now is a former diplomat turned NGO, founder turned MP and minister Rory Stewart. Or we stood down as an MP in 2019 after losing the conservative whip for refusing to back Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. And these days is mainly occupied with writing, lecturing, charity work and a podcast that I personally have never heard of. Rory Stewart, welcome to Pod Save the UK.


Rory Stewart Thank you for having me.


So look, we’ve got a technical political term that you may be familiar with that we’ve been throwing around on the show, but lately and that is complete and utter clusterfuck. Let’s start with just the campaign. Let’s look at the kind of short term. How is the campaign gone this badly from your perspective?


Rory Stewart Well, the conservative campaign has been a complete catastrophe and the Labour campaign hasn’t. So that suggests it’s not something kind of inevitable.


Nish Kumar Yeah.


So let’s look first at what’s gone wrong. There have been these unfortunate interviews where he said unfortunate things like saying, you know, he he didn’t have a lot of stuff growing up, didn’t have Sky TV and stuff. Some of it is a bit unfair. Maybe, you know, some of it. You sort of get the sense that journalists had decided before the whole thing started that it was going to be a disaster. So even quite small things play into this. Other things a completely outrageous sort of own goals, like, this betting scandal thing in the way that it’s been handled. But the fundamental sense is a campaign that from the beginning has not been structured, not been organized, isn’t in control, and is lurching around from error to error with a lot of people who are behaving like amateurs.


Coco Khan So when do you think this election was actually lost because you said that, you know, the press had already made up their mind? When do you think, genuinely, that conservatives were toast? What moment was that?


Rory Stewart I think they were toast in 2019. So, nearly five years ago when they elected Boris Johnson, I think that was the beginning of the the problem, because this was a party that, you know, the, you know, was often seen as the nasty party, but it was supposed to be kind of serious and thoughtful and grown up, and they brought in basically a ludicrous buffoon. And then they replaced him with Liz Truss, who was completely reckless, threw caution to the wind and, destroyed the British economy, which which destroyed their other bit, which is them had to be good at money. So once they’d done that, there was very little that Rishi Sunak could do to win the election. What he’s done since is. And but maybe this is just psychological. Maybe if you go into an election knowing you’re going to lose and everybody knows they’re going to lose. Maybe actually vicious cycles happened and the whole thing unravels, even more dramatically because you’re, you’re, you’re going in so sort of off balance and depressed from the, from the start.


Nish Kumar But as someone who’s been inside the conservative election campaigns, I’ve just basic errors of optics like, don’t launch a campaign in the rain, don’t be photographed with a sign that says exit pointing directly at your head. Don’t launch a campaign in Titanic Square and have the first question be, are you the captain of a sinking ship? Isn’t it someone’s job within the infrastructure? And don’t fucking skip D-Day. Isn’t it someone’s job within the campaign’s infrastructure to avoid those kind of basic optical errors? Why is that? Why is that not happened? Because, I mean, we talked a lot about the scandals and the betting stuff, but just in terms of like the basic mechanics of running an election, why is that not happened?


Rory Stewart There’s clearly something badly wrong inside his team. Alister Campbell A lot of his diaries are about saying, I moved the Prime Minister away from the exit sign. I didn’t take the photograph of, you know, front of the drain. He said that thinking back to his time at Tony Blair, that if for some bizarre reason, Tony Blair decided to leave the D-Day celebrations early, somebody, the driver, the policeman, somebody would have said, whoa, whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa. This is not a good look.


Nish Kumar Yeah.


Rory Stewart You don’t want to do that. So there’s something very odd that. But maybe if you go into a match completely convinced you’re going to lose, you kind of fumble passes, you do daft stuff, you’re just not concentrating from the beginning.


Nish Kumar It sounds like you’ve been watching England play the US.


Coco Khan So Rory I just want to ask you directly, because I don’t like the conservatives, I think that’s quite clear. And I find it hard to muster sympathy or concern of this idea of the destruction of this party. I mean, you know, back in 2019, no one was worried that Labour getting smashed was bad for democracy. Now we’re being told we should worry. Can you please explain to me why this is why this is a problem?


Rory Stewart I was very worried in 2019 about Corbyn and what he was doing to Labour, and I thought that not having a credible opposition was very, very dangerous. You know, one side of that is you end up with an idiot like Boris Johnson being elected. That was a vote against Jeremy Corbyn as much as a vote for Boris Johnson. Credible oppositions challenge. They keep parties from wandering off and in strange directions. If Labour comes in and wins a majority of let’s say, let’s say they have 300 more seats, the conservatives. And the conservatives are reduced to some mad right wing populist rump. You don’t have basic structures of challenge. Kind of pompous words like accountability. The whole idea of the loyal opposition is really important in British politics.


Coco Khan But does the opposition have to always be either Labour or conservative? You know, there’s a conversation at the moment that the opposition might be the Liberal Democrats who have the manifesto, which is strangely to the left of Labour. Personally, I like to see things move in that direction. So I’m obviously very happy. But does it have to be the conservatives who are the opposition.


Rory Stewart Only because of our crazy electoral system? So even in the best case scenario, the Lib Dems will get maybe 50 seats. So we could end up in a situation in which Labour gets, let’s say, 40% of the vote. So 60% of the vote would go to other parties, but because of our electoral system, they could end up with three quarters of the seats in parliament and no real opposition at all.


Coco Khan But I mean, how bad can it be? You know what I mean? Like, it’s very cautious manifesto. I could imagine why one one would be anxious about a majority of a party that was saying really big things, but this party isn’t.


Rory Stewart Well, one reason to be anxious and that this. You know, I’ve just written a book called Politics On the Edge, which is about this. It’s about my coming into Parliament in 2010 and finding the birth of this thing called populism. And the risk for Labour is that as they move into the center ground, they’re basically becoming a kind of tribute to the 1990s in a world which is a populist world. So what they’re going to do is they’re going to create huge space on the left and the right for extremists. And we can see this in what’s about to happen in France, where Marine Le Pen is about a romp through against Macron. Macron. It’s the kind of Keir Starmer style centrist. You can see it in Germany. Olaf Schultz is a Keir Starmer style centrist and now the AfD is now taking off their. So the, the, the problem is that you can either have a moderate, thoughtful, sensible conservative opposition or you’re right in the door to much, much more extreme positions. And that’s what worries me.


Nish Kumar But can you argue that the Conservative Party spent the last 14 years steadily opening the door to the hard right of British politics, and part of the problem has been notionally center right parties, essentially ceding ground to the hard right in an attempt to head them off by actually slowly being eaten by them. The Conservative Party has essentially slowly been consumed by the hard right of British politics. Nigel Farage has been calling the tune. Really for the best part of the last decade, right?


Rory Stewart So the question is, what do you do about it? If I’m right, that because of a lot of things, because of economic problems, because of people’s anxieties about immigration, there is an increasingly big populist voter base. You can take two attitudes towards it. You can say, we’re going to completely ignore them on the ocean, or you can try to do what Boris Johnson did, which is kind of reach out and try to take that terrain. But the fundamental truth is it doesn’t really matter what you do there, aren’t there?


Coco Khan Do you think I’ve done that curiosity? You know, we talk a lot about in this podcast, the the broad tent of Labour. That’s what we want it to be. And in a way, this is the broad tent of the conservatives having these. Which would you where would you put the line of the tent?


Rory Stewart I ran for leadership against Boris Johnson in 2019, and I was running on the center left the party. So I believe that elections are one in the center ground. But it’s not just that. I believe elections are one of the central. And I think that a democracy is about representing everybody, regardless what they voted for you. And that means that it’s about listening. It’s about compromise. I mean, I’m profoundly. Against polarization. And one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable in Britain is precisely that we’ve lost the idea of a center ground, that that part of what I fear listening to you base, is that you’ve got perfectly justifiable objections to Conservative Party, but the risk is that you’re actually rejecting half the British population and that you’re getting into an American mindset, which I feel when I go to the States. You know, when I say in New York, we need to rebuild the center ground. My liberal friends like, no, we don’t. We just need to kill the other side. That ignorant, idiotic, let’s murder them, right? And so I believe politics is essentially about the fact we’re all fellow citizens.


Coco Khan The reason I ask about the big the big tent. I’m not out to destroy anyone for clarity. Right? I’m a lover, not a fighter. But the reason I ask about the big tent is because of electoral reform. So, you know, we have a first past the post system. That means that people like reform traditionally get crowded out. I am scared of people like reform. As a woman of color, I think the narrative is scary. I think it cautions the debate. I think it’s worse for all of us to have that poison in the public debate. And if we move to a system of electoral reform, they would have seats, wouldn’t they? And so there’s a part of me that is like crowd those voices out because you cannot debate with hate. Hate is something that cannot be debated. Someone has it like a prejudice or a, you know, bigotry. That’s not something you can argue away in a way. That policy you can have a conversation with.




Nish Kumar I just want to return to something that it seems like underpins a huge amount of the crises that kind of engulfed this country, the kind of austerity economics of the 2010 to 2015 period. This is an article written by the economist Paul Krugman in 2015. Is there some good reason why the deficit obsessions should still rule in Britain, even as it fades away after a while? No, the country’s not different. The economics of austerity the same. The intellectual case as bankrupt in Britain as everywhere else. Is there a problem in terms of reaching out to this population that seems very alienated from politics and is falling into the trap of populism? Is there a problem that we’re not able to do that largely because we’re constrained by? Fiscal rules that restrict how much the government is able to spend. There is a chronic problem of underinvestment in this country, and that starts in some ways in the kind of early 2010s. The the, the crisis in the NHS can’t be separated from cuts made to social care in that period. The cuts to social care have put a huge amount of pressure on the National Health Service, and it’s almost not worth having a conversation about the NHS without factoring in what’s been done to social care in this country. We’re now talking about a Labour government coming in that is committing to a lot of the same lack of spending commitments. Is there a sense that we’re kind of trapped in austerity economics, and it’s preventing the government from actually actively intervening in people’s lives in a way that would show them that politics can still improve the lot of the average person living in this country?


Rory Stewart Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think it’s a good challenge on this austerity point. I suppose you’ve got to ask yourself, why is Labour? Why is Keir Starmer also signing up to a sort of austerity? And you’ve been quite critical of you were quite critical of him, just last week about lacking in ambitious, ambitious enough spending commitments. Yeah. So he said that he’s going to sign up to 18 billion pounds worth of spending cuts. He’s not going to borrow anymore. He’s not going to tax anymore. And he’s hoping that growth is going to miraculously come by from business by itself. So the question is, why is he doing that? Why does he agree with, broadly speaking, Rishi Sunak, George Osborne and actually Alistair Darling, who was Gordon Brown’s chancellor, who was also suggesting the same things from 2010 onwards. It’s because they feel that Britain doesn’t have the space that the United States has. That you can’t borrow back in Britain, that we’ve reached about the ceiling of our debt. And probably the biggest problem in Britain, which we don’t talk about, never talk about, which has caused most of the financial problems that Rishi Sunak’s dealing with and the kiss that was taking ever is that she covered. So we spent something in the region of 400,000 million pounds on the effects of Covid and compensation for Covid. Our economy contracted by 17%, the largest contraction in 300 years. Now that 400 billion pounds is, you know, good 20% of your national debt is, you know, four times or three times the kind of deficit that was running in in 2010. Sweden didn’t do that. And for whatever reason, Sweden didn’t lock down in that way. It didn’t borrow in that way and spend in that way. It didn’t take the economic hit in that way. It’s not carrying that problem. America is carrying a big debt issue, but it’s the world’s reserve currency. So in other words, I suppose the question is, is there an amazing alternative thing out there, like Paul Krugman thinks? And there are other people who think that. And Jeremy Corbyn obviously thought that there’s a great opportunity to borrow a lot more money, spend a lot more money, and create economic growth. Or is Britain basically bust and out of financial options? Isn’t really able to borrow. And that maybe Liz Truss revealed when she tried to basically borrow money that the markets won’t put up that.


Nish Kumar But I mean even before Covid, we’d had a stunted recovery. You know, our real wages hadn’t recovered from 2008 levels. And I think even in terms of paying down the national debt, we have the highest tax burden since the Second World War. Are we making a political choice about who pays off our national debt?


Rory Stewart Taxes have been eliminated entirely for people on the lowest incomes, and been reduced significantly for people in median incomes. Now. Nobody talks about this. We imagine when we say we’ve got the biggest tax burden, that that means that the rich are getting away with that and the poor are being crushed.


Coco Khan Wealth taxation seems to also be a very dirty word. The current wealth taxes don’t meet other nations.


Rory Stewart I mean, I personally support more tax. I mean, I ran in the 2019 election against Boris Johnson saying we should pay more tax, we should spend more in public services. I mean, I was just talking to Labour camp in Kensington. He says that a lot of the time when he’s campaigning, wealthy people are saying, why don’t you charge us more income tax? So this is sort of odd thinking. I think a lot of people on higher incomes would be happy to spend.


Coco Khan Right.


Rory Stewart Pay more income tax, probably not more wealth tax because wealth tax continues at the same rate regardless what’s happened to income. So you can end up as I don’t know. A GP’s widow living in a house that’s now worth 2 million pounds and you’re living in the suburbs, but you have a little income and suddenly you’re being hit with a bill of 50,000 pounds a year, meals tax. You’re you’re in real trouble, right? Income tax, I think, is fair. It’s more redistributive. But but that’s regardless I agree. Let’s pay more tax, put more into public services. But the big changes that Labour needs to do is planning. So they need to completely change our planning system to build more houses. I they need to lean into artificial intelligence, and they need to rejoin the customs union, and they need to reform the NHS. But the problem is and this is where we run into problems, is that all those things are going to be very, very painful and very unpopular. Not just with conservatives, but a lot of Labour support. So building more houses and infrastructure will involve annoying a lot of people who care about biodiversity and climate. Pushing ahead was really exploiting the possibilities of I will terrify a lot of people and may lead to a lot of job losses. Reforming the NHS and other things like that will alienate the unions. You know, there are junior doctors now asking for a 35% pay rise. They’re going to be very, very angry. And rejoining the customs union seems to be something which all the political parties are in a conspiracy of silence about. And Keir Starmer is ruled out. So the four things that I think Keir Starmer could do to generate growth, regardless of what he’s doing with taxing and borrowing, he almost certainly won’t have the. The courage, the support, the roots, the snus, the cunning, the determination to dry throat.


Nish Kumar But aren’t you sort of advocating now for a massive Labour majority? Because if he has a massive Labour majority, then he probably has the power to push through some potentially initially unpopular policies that he might be able. He might only see the benefits some by the time he comes.


Rory Stewart I definitely think he needs a comfortable majority. I think he’s much more likely to be able to do stuff. If he has a majority of 80 or 100in, be able to get his votes through, get his legislation through. But I also think that it can be helpful, strangely, to have an opposition. So he would be helped by having a conservative opposition saying we can’t pay doctors 35% more if he wants to go in. Get involved in those kind of conversations. If he’s. In a conversation purely within the Labour Party, I suspect risk aversion. Unions desire to keep the party comfortable will mean that he can go through five years without really changing anything.


Nish Kumar My final question I want to ask you is you’ve expressed interest in going back into politics. But why? Because isn’t there an argument that you actually have a more, you have a bigger platform and a more powerful platform to actually talk and chew over these issues by writing books and obviously the podcast that you did with Alastair Campbell, you know, it’s one of the most listen to podcasts in the country. It’s a conversation about politics. You have a second podcast where you talk about the virtues needed in leadership. Is there an argument that you’re not in the best possible position currently to actually chew these issues over in a way that, because of the nature of your podcast, reach as a kind of bipartisan platform?


Rory Stewart Yeah, when I’m in a chair myself up, I like that idea. But but the truth matter is that it’s it’s doing it. Not talking about it makes the difference. And what I would hope is that this time that I’m spending writing, thinking, talking about these things. Could make me better at actually doing stuff, because I think what we’re lacking is not ideas, it’s action.


Nish Kumar Would you run for Tory leader again? Were you obviously in a position to. Because you’re in a pagan?


Rory Stewart Yeah. If I felt I could make a difference. Yeah, rather than just depress myself.


Coco Khan Rory Stewart, thank you so much for joining us on Pod Save the UK. Your book, politics on the edge is out in paperback right now.


Nish Kumar Thank you.


Rory Stewart Thank you for having me.




Nish Kumar So I think the idea about trying to rebuild and some kind of consensus, between the parties is a sort of challenge for the next government. And I thought it was interesting that he said he wanted Labour to have a comfortable majority, because he doesn’t think that they can. Do anything productive? Yeah. If they’re constantly worrying about their majority, I guess he somebody that was in Parliament through the kind of immediate post 2017 election period where Theresa may’s government essentially ground to a halt by the fact that they were having to rely on the DUP to prop up all of their votes. That certainly is an interesting idea. It’s I still don’t know. Fully if it’s good or bad for democracy, that one party has, yes, enormous, unaccountable power. My instinct is that it isn’t good for democracy. But at the same time, we’ve all seen very recently what happens when a government doesn’t have a big enough majority to actually get anything done? And what that ends up, the net effect of that is that it ends up making people feel like politics can’t achieve anything, and that that’s, you know, this kind of very real crisis of late alienation is fed by that. And the problem is when people get alienated from politics, that’s when they tend to start, you know, lurching to the far right. I mean, that’s what what we’re seeing happening in France and Germany is that people feel like they can’t. People feel like politics can’t do anything for them. And so an anti politics vote becomes a vote for the far right.


Coco Khan It would be very fascinating to see if the Lib Dems actually do become the opposition, because it would be interesting to see if actually perhaps there has been a shift actually, that over the last 14 years it has turned people who would ordinarily be a bit more, conservative, made them more open to ideas that are a bit more, you know, pro spend, a bit more radical, that sort of stuff. It’d be interesting to see. I mean, I hope it is the case because I feel like that is what everybody needs. Although, of course, I do accept that the will of the people must gazump my desires. I have accepted that many, many times as someone who has voted for a party and them never won. So yeah, I do accept that.


Nish Kumar And that’s almost it for our pre-election coverage. But we’re going to be in your feeds soon as we can. On Friday the 5th of July, reflecting over the results, we pop the champagne into chill. Hopefully we’ll see cause to pop it.


Coco Khan Well, you know, you’re a big fan of a post vote pint. So I think whatever happens, you will get your treat.


Nish Kumar In the meantime, do not forget to vote. It’s not over till it’s over. You have a voice. Please use it. Thank you so much for joining us. We want to hear your thoughts, in the final days of the election. And also, we would like to hear your thoughts. We’ll have a quite a small turnaround because we’ll be recording on Friday morning. But we have a small window for you to get your thoughts to us. Once the election results have come in. Email us PSUK@reducedlistening.Co.Uk or drop us a voice note on WhatsApp. Our number is 07494 933444. Internationally that’s +44 7494 933444.


Coco Khan And don’t forget to follow at Pod Save the UK on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube as well. Catch full episodes and highlights from there. It’s in full color and everything, so you can see us in all our technical color as we say Technicolor glory. But actually it’s probably more like Technicolor.


Nish Kumar Adequacy.


Coco Khan Adequacy. Yeah. And do drop us a review if you like.


Nish Kumar Pod Save the UK is a Reduced Listening production for Crooked Media.


Coco Khan Thanks to producer May Robson, senior producer James Tindale and digital producer Alex Bishop.


Nish Kumar Video editing was by Will Dunkin and our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.


Coco Khan Thanks to our engineer Hannah Stewart.


Nish Kumar The executive producers are Anoushka Sharma, Dan Jackson, and Madeline Herringer with additional support from Ari Swartz.


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