The looming political shake-up

Published by The i paper (24th April, 2017)

Britain faces both the most important and the dullest election campaign for many years. It is the most important since Theresa May seeks a mandate to pull the nation out of Europe on her tough terms. But it is also the dullest because the result seems so obvious. Polls may be distrusted, and election campaigns throw up surprises – yet, so far as anything is predictable in modern politics, the Prime Minister will be returned to power with a much bigger majority.

Perhaps, however, people will look back at this needless ballot as a limp battle that not only led to a hard Brexit, but also played a seismic role in reshaping British politics. Forget shallow talk of a progressive alliance. Instead, focus on the legacy of likely events. On the left, a selfish and inept leader is devastating his party. On the right, their rivals drift back towards nasty party terrain. The Tories will probably win, and win big – but what will be the long-term impact?

Deal first with the left. If Jeremy Corbyn had a shred of decency, or party loyalty, he would have resigned, since it is obvious the electorate does not like him. He has failed to offer opposition since winning the Labour crown and played a shameful role in assisting Brexit. Now, he seems set on driving his party to Doomsday defeat. The big question is scale: will the mauling be worse than 1983 when Michael Foot’s Labour won just 209 seats?

His party faces an existential crisis, having lost Scotland and failed to resolve splits between left and right, north and south, insular and outward-looking. This is not all due to miserable leadership, since Corbyn’s foes constantly snipe, but offer no alternative. Who knows what Labour stands for now? Even on Brexit, the most important issue of the day, voters are baffled by dismal contortions. No wonder less than half those who voted Labour in 2015 say they will do so again.

This is failure of epic proportions. The best activists can offer on the doorstep – excluding those deluded enough to see Corbyn still as a saviour of Socialism – is a suggestion voters support them, safe in knowledge their leader will never enter Downing Street. Labour will try to fight on its strong ground of more support for creaking public services. It will be aided in northern heartlands by Ukip’s collapse. But Brexit overshadows everything – and no one in their right mind would want this divided and weak team negotiating departure.

I know three people who left Labour in recent weeks: one a devoted activist, and two members switching to the Liberal Democrats. Brexit has given this third party a cutting-edge after being coalition fall guys and they have been admirably clear in their opposition. This has helped them pick up council seats, cash and members; now, they can exploit the growing gap in the middle of British politics. Yet they remain minnows, with a lacklustre leader, whose recent contortions on homosexuality underscore his defects. Longer term, they still need to resolve if they are liberals or social democrats.

The Tories aim for crushing victory. The Prime Minister wants to strengthen her hand on Europe, proclaiming unity while demanding silence from those who assumed democracy encouraged debate. Such is the party’s dominance it seems daft to raise the idea it might be sowing the seeds of its own decay. May seeks to be seen as a social reformer and will pitch her manifesto to the centre, even planting her flag on Labour ground with statist interventions such as a cap on energy prices. Note, also, how she resisted calls to abandon the absurd aid target, storing up trouble for her next term.

Understandably, she wants to exploit electoral trust to deliver Brexit and does not want to face voters in its messy aftermath. Some Remainers now urge faith in Mother Theresa (or ‘Mummy’, as one Sunday newspaper revealed Tory MPs toe-curlingly refer to her as in texts). Certainly, a bigger majority gives May more wriggle room to ignore the ultras and deliver a softer deal with Europe, although there have been few signs this is her intention. But the danger is an election that leaves the impression of a reactionary force: talking of grammar schools, tinged with nationalism, intolerant of opposition and ready to sacrifice economic success to repel foreigners.

Much has been made of an article by Garry Heath, the party chairman in Wycombe whose MP is Steve Baker, a leader of the Brexit insurgency. Attention focused on his demand to ditch MPs who are not hardcore leavers, exposing the savage triumphalism and zealotry on his side. Yet even worse was his crude call to ‘return a voice to the white working class’, revealing ugly attitudes inflamed by last year’s referendum. Incredibly this was dressed up as an end to ‘division politics’.

There is profound irony that May could end up reviving the nasty party image as prime minister, since she highlighted the issue 15 years ago in her landmark Tory party conference speech demanding modernisation. This is certainly not her intention. But an election fought over Brexit fuels this air of angry intolerance in a bitterly divided country and hardens her party. This can only deter young and liberal-minded people, especially when faced by decent opposition again.

Great issues have forced political realignment down the ages. Perhaps the tribal clothing of our two main parties no longer fits the body politic and Brexit merely hastens a much-needed refashioning. Meltdown looms large on the left, yet traces of similar cracks can be seen on the right. The Tories should never forget the roots of decay often emerge when an empire seems strongest.

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