The battle for British votes used to be pretty simple: The Conservatives would propose right-wing policies that generally favoured business and often hurt the poor. Labour would oppose those policies, putting forward a gentler vision that shaved the rough edges off capitalism. The public chose between them, swinging back and forth through the middle ground, depending on how well the parties performed.
But since the Conservatives won the 2015 election, the game has become a lot more complicated — and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party appears not to have noticed.
Weirdly, the Tories are adopting a lot of moderate and soft-left positions, the kind of positions that the Labour Party used to have.
At the same time, Labour has taken a turn toward a 1980s type of left-wing politics, typified by shadow chancellor John McDonnell who yesterday inexplicably waved a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book in the House of Commons.
Corbyn needs to wake up and realise just how much policy ground he’s ceding to the Tories, unless he wants his party to end up relegated into permanent minority status. A lot of potential voters in the South — who tend to be less left-wing than those in the North — might easily conclude that they won’t need a Labour government if Cameron is delivering a minimal level of Labour-like policies.
The Tories ought to be an easy kill for Labour:
- Prime Minister David Cameron is like a cartoon Conservative: The son of a stockbroker and a judge. Went to Eton and then Oxford. Personal friend of Jeremy Clarkson. Related to the Queen. His ancestry is a Monty Pythonesque: His great-great-great-grandfather was William Feilding, 7th Earl of Denbigh, GCH, PC, Gentleman of the Bedchamber.
- The favourite to succeed him as Tory leader for the 2020 vote is Boris Johnson, who is a continuation of that cartoon: His mother was the illegitimate granddaughter of Prince Paul of Württemberg and he is also a descendant of King George II. He is an eighth cousin to Cameron.
You couldn’t ask for a better pair of upper-class fops to prove that Britain is class-society ruled by an hereditary gentry.
But those are merely the appearances. Here’s a list of recent Tory policies:
- Minimum wage increased to £7.20, and a “living wage” of up to £9.15 in London.
- Maintained the working tax credit (a key Labour demand).
- 2% rise in council tax.
- A new 0.5% employment tax to fund apprentice training.
- No cuts to the police budget (a key Corbyn demand prior to the Autumn budget statement).
- Increased funding for the NHS.
- War on Islamic State condoned by a vote in the UN security council (at the time of writing, Corbyn doesn’t currently have a policy on opposing IS, only questions and criticisms).
- Childcare provision increased to 30 hours per week (more than Labour promised at the last election).
Yes, this is cherry-picking. And the tax credit was only under threat in the first place because George Osborne threatened it.
But if this basket of policies had been proposed by a Labour government, the Tories would have accused Corbyn of being a tax-and-spend socialist who uses others’ money to pay for government programmes.
Johnson, should he succeed Cameron, is similarly (and infamously) non-ideological. For instance, Johnson is in favour of both Crossrail 2 and HS2, the two massive rail projects for London and the North, respectively.
There used to be a time when Conservatives were against giant government-paid building projects, the kind of projects that Labour traditionally has urged.
But now the Tories like them, too.
It’s worth reminding ourselves just how badly Labour got wiped out in last election, and the scale of the task it now faces if the party ever wants to form a government again. Labour now controls just 232 seats to the Tories’ 331. Labour must persuade 106 more seats — mostly in the South — to vote its way in order to win in 2020, according to one Labour policy group’s analysis.
This isn’t an impossible task. As Business Insider has argued before, the swing of votes actually favoured Labour this year even though the maths didn’t deliver the seats. Former leader Ed Miliband added 700,000 new votes to Labour’s total in the last election. That is momentum that can be built on:
Unfortunately for Labour, the economy is growing and the country has record high employment and record-low unemployment. We’re technically at full employment. And, according to the ONS, the UK has never before had such a small portion of its workforce in the public sector — just 17%.
All that bodes well for the Tories.
Labour’s best bet, therefore, is to hunker down and grind out the kind of nuts-and-bolts, common-sense constituency service work and doorstep campaigning that would convince voters in the South, where Labour needs to win seats. Labour ought to be talking about spurring small businesses, tech startups, and supporting employees in the private sector — where the vast majority of workers actually are. This is traditional Tory stuff, but Labour doesn’t have much to say about it. There is no reason Labour can’t start fighting on this ground. Plenty of entrepreneurs have left-wing views. They just happen to run businesses while they have them. But you don’t hear that coming from Labour.
Corbyn’s recent trips have been to Liverpool, Lancaster, Scunthorpe and Swansea — all classic Labour strongholds. Just not territory that Labour needs to win.
Corbyn has chosen as a shadow chancellor a former NUM and NUPE trade unionist, who can quote Mao. He’s the kind of person who would be perfect if unemployment was over 10% and you were fighting a Tory government that didn’t want to build any railways. The exact opposite of the situation we have now, in other words.
Instead, we have the Conservatives happily stretching their tent from the far right all the way over to the Blairite left. They have already eaten the entirety of the Liberal Democrat Party. And Corbyn … has a spokesperson who believes Stalin’s reputation was overblown.
It is difficult to see how this will result in a 2020 Labour victory.
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