By Ian Richardson
The run up to the local elections on 4 May saw a clarification in Theresa May’s election strategy – or more accurately Lynton Crosby’s strategy: a pitch to mop up the UKIP vote by rebranding the Tories as the anti-European, ‘hard Brexit’ and anti-immigration party. Her ‘strong and stable’ mantra is of course chiefly inflected against the alleged ‘dangers’ presented by a Labour-led coalition government, but it also works as a banner for a reinvented hard right Tory party that promises to drive through a full and thorough Brexit.
This repositioning of the Tories was announced on the steps to 10 Downing St when May summoned up her version of UKIP’s chief bogeyman – the overweening ‘Brussels bureaucrat’ – to the service of the Tories’ election campaign. May’s invective went much further than straight bananas, alleging that, à la Putin, Brussels was attempting to interfere in ‘our’ election. This accusation was followed by much Thatcheresque posturing about how these paper tigers on the continent would soon however find they were dealing with a ‘very difficult woman’.
This well-orchestrated intervention was clearly aimed at rallying the UKIP vote behind the Tories May was donning Nigel Farage’s well-worn anti-Europe cloak, while preparing the ground to blame the EU when the Tory false promises of an easy exit and rising prosperity become clear.
The results of the local elections on 4 May were a first indication of how this will work. It successfully led to a complete melt down in the UKIP vote as it lost every council seat it had won in 2013 with its voters deserting en masse to the Tories. As Alex Salmond, not inaccurately, put it, the Tories ‘have eliminated UKIP by becoming UKIP’.
This also puts the alleged Tory landslide on 4 May into proper perspective. Had this collapse in UKIP’s support occurred at the 2015 general election, the impact would have been similar. For example, according to Professor Rob Ford (co-author of Revolt on the Right.), if just half of UKIP’s 2015 vote had instead gone to the Tories in the general election, then the Tories would have won 30 plus more parliamentary seats.
But May’s positioning of the Tories to the right is not just a short-term strategy to be dropped after the election on 8 June. It is the first sally in an attempted recomposition of the Tories’ base in preparation for the new post-Brexit articulations of British politics.
If the leaks from Theresa May’s dinner are true, then she possibly still harbours illusions that if Britain’s negotiators hangs tough they will eventually be able to cherry-pick a custom-made Brexit settlement that keeps the benefits of the Single Market, without freedom of movement, with only a limited role for EU law and without significant payments into the EU budget. But this is precisely an illusion; the real choice will come down to accepting the rules of the Single Market and getting its benefits, or a deal which significantly reduces Britain’s trade and financial access to the EU. May ought to know this. Therefore at the same time as promising a tough negotiating stance and maintaining the fiction that she can get major concessions from the EU, she is preparing the Tories for the politics of a hard Brexit Britain.
Some of the features of a post-Brexit Britain are already emerging. Since the referendum result the devaluation of the pound has led to rising inflation. The first effect of this was a consumer spending bubble as the likelihood of rising prices led to a credit fuelled spending binge over Christmas and the New Year, which cushioned the effect of the underlying negative trends in the economy. The bottom has now fallen out of this and consumer spending has fallen to a 14 year low, while personal debt is at record highs. GDP growth slowed to just 0.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2017. All those on fixed incomes, from pensioners to public sector workers to those on benefits, are already seeing their incomes fall in real terms.
This is just the beginning. It is true that smaller British exporters got a short-term boost from the fall in the pound and, with higher tariffs not yet a factor, this led to some immediate over-optimism about the consequences of Brexit among some business sectors. But the larger employers – Japanese companies which employ 440,000 people in the UK, international banks and financial services companies based chiefly in the City, other car, pharmaceutical and internationally oriented companies – are already assessing their prospects, planning their future expansion will be outside the UK and even considering whether they will keep production and jobs here at all.
This will have a devastating effect on growth, leading to a contraction in jobs and in government revenues, while the British debt will become harder and more expensive to finance without capital inflows from Europe.
May’s solution to this is simple: to drive through a real game-changing political reorganisation in Britain to roll-back the welfare state and destroy the 70 year consensus in British politics in favour of ‘welfarism’ and state provision of health, education and social care.
As these real consequences of a ‘hard Brexit’ begin to become clearer a huge political fight will break out – including within the Tory Party itself. May has already faced significant problems within the Parliamentary Tory Party. Just weeks ago, she had to abandon plans to raise National Insurance on some of the lowest-paid ‘self-employed’ workers as her narrow majority meant even a rather small group of Tory MPs could threaten a defeat. This will only get worse, both as the consequences of a hard Brexit work through and the Tory government tries to push through ultra-austerity policies, meaning more parliamentary revolts and declining electoral support. This is why May called the General Election now.
The new alignment of British politics that May is aiming for is a hard right Tory Party deploying racism and xenophobia to distract from its huge blows against living standards, with the only opposition to this a weak politics of the centre that has no fundamental alternative. This also requires destroying or demoralising the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. But even the radical policies laid out by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – to borrow for investment and increase taxation on the highly paid – would be insufficient to solve the problems of a British economy excluded from preferential access to EU markets. It would be very hard to win a popular majority, at least in the current level of politicisation in Britain, for the levels of borrowing needed, and consequent control over the banks, to substitute for the huge squeeze that will follow from leaving the EU and the Single Market.
Thus May’s aim is to deploy this elimination of the economic space for various forms of ‘moderate’ reformism – from the so called ‘left’ of the Tory Party to the main stream of the Labour Party – to ensure that the polarisation in politics that is coming on the back of a hard Brexit feeds into a narrative that there is no ‘strong and stable’ alternative. In achieving this she will deploy every nationalistic, racist and backward-looking trope from the UKIP school of politics.
This new political situation spells a mighty set of problems for Labour, which were reflected in the local elections results. But these problems are not new, and long predate the Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, it is just that with Brexit the only solutions are much more radical and difficult to achieve.
The soul-searching in Labour about why it did not regain the 5 million votes that it lost between the 1997 and 2010 began after the 2015 election, when under Ed Miliband Labour lost an election that it was widely flagged to win, as it only managed to drive its vote up by 1.5 per cent from 2010 (winning 740,000 additional votes). The impact of the 2008 financial crisis was, pre-Brexit, creating some recomposition in the pattern of post-1945 British party politics. This, inter alia, led to the increase in support for UKIP, the rise in votes for the SNP, a small rise in votes for Plaid Cymru and the Greens, and a collapse of the Lib Dem vote, while the votes for the Tories and Labour were essentially stuck with the Tories maintaining a small advantage.
One particular reason for this Tory advantage is the rise of the SNP vote in Scotland, where a combination of the national question, Labour’s subordination to the Tory-led ultra-unionist campaign for a No vote in the referendum, and unpopular Scottish Labour policies on taxation and other issues combined to create a switch from Labour to the SNP north of the border. Brexit has compounded this political shift with Scottish politics increasingly polarised between pro-Brexit/unionism on the one hand, and pro-EU/pro-independence on the other. The space in Scotland for a Labour Party standing as a pro-EU/pro-unionist party certainly exists, but is very squeezed, particularly in the absence of strong redistributive economic policies from Scottish Labour. Scottish Labour has maintained a ‘Blairite’ right-centrist orientation on policy and rejected the Corbyn repositioning of the Labour Party to the left.
Both in 2015 and today it is also claimed that the reason Labour is not advancing in the polls, is because it lost voters to UKIP and these voters have not returned but instead migrated to the Tories. This is not true, and rests on an incorrect analysis of the shifts in voting patterns.
Lord Ashcroft’s poll of 12,000 plus voters interviewed on the day of the election in 2015 (here) is the largest publicly available survey measuring the switching of voters from one party in 2010 to another in 2015. It shows only a very small share of the UKIP vote came from Labour. In 2015 UKIP won its highest-ever General Election score, with 12.6 per cent of the vote, or 3.9 million individual votes. Ashcroft’s poll shows that 1.6 million of these voters had supported the Tories in 2010, roughly 700,000 had supported the Lib Dems, and only 500,000 had supported Labour. It is true that these 500,000 votes have not come back to Labour, but this amounted to only 1.7 per cent of those voting in 2015. If Labour pitched its policies on immigration, Brexit and nationalism to win back these voters it would lose many more to the left, and anyway this 1.7 per cent would not turn Labour’s electoral fortunes around even if all other votes could be somehow retained.
Of course the main argument that the media and the Labour right want to peddle is that the failure of Labour to regain lost ground electorally must be laid entirely at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. But it is evident that the British establishment, its media lackeys and the right of the Labour Party would criticise Corbyn’s leadership even if Labour were on course for a landslide. As Blair said, he opposes Corbyn politically, not for tactical electoral reasons.
The reality is the complete opposite: Corbyn remains Labour’s best hope. A right-centrist political line – that is pro-war, pro-austerity and deploying racism – has virtually wiped out the social democratic parties in France, Holland and Greece and decimated its vote in Spain. The Blairites have led Labour to disaster in Scotland.
The first struggle that is needed is to resist the hard Brexit planned by May, which Labour opposes. To do this consistently it is necessary to oppose leaving the Single Market. But also in the run up to this and beyond it is vital to resist the renewed Tory austerity offensive. If the Blairites take back the leadership of the party they will capitulate to the Tory cuts, as they have consistently shown they will do. All Corbyn’s leadership opponents accepted cuts to working tax credits for example. For the unions it would be a disaster to have a Labour leadership that supported another Tory drive to lower living standards.
Corbyn’s Labour puts the economy, jobs and living standards first, seeking to shift the costs of the unfolding economic crisis onto big business and the rich, away from workers and the poor.
Only Labour can provide a real alternative to the Tories and their new offensive.
No to Tories making workers pay for the Brexit debacle.
All out for Labour on June 8!
Jeremy Corbyn for PM!