By Ian Richardson
Theresa May called the general election because living standards were already deteriorating due to the inflation caused by the fall in the pound’s exchange rate after the Brexit referendum. She effectively lost the election because the decline in living standards has already become widely apparent.
The Tories only intend to deepen that fall in living standards. The damage to the economy and to ordinary people from Brexit will be so great that, from the Tories’ perspective the burden must all fall on workers and the poor in order to preserve profits. This explains the entirely negative Tory campaign, the refusal to answer questions and the lack of any proposals that did not hit one section of the population or another.
Labour’s campaign was entirely the opposite and set a positive agenda in defence of living standards. It understood that the key to advancing in an election is to set the agenda. The result confounded all Corbyn’s critics – the manifesto and the campaign were big vote winners. The motor was an under-30s radicalisation that was crucial to the Corbyn leadership campaigns being replicated among the broadest layers of the population, with a very high turnout and vote for Labour.
In this way the threatened Tory landslide was transformed into a loss of a dozen seats and a hung parliament. The Tories will be reliant on the DUP – one of the more reactionary political formations in Western Europe, who sought the endorsement at this election of illegal paramilitary organisations. The Tories are the real bedfellows of terrorist sympathisers.
Presiding over declining living standards and an attempted Hard Brexit means Tory support will decline. We rarely agree with Lord Falconer but he is right when he says: @theresa_may ‘an illegitimate prime minister’ and ‘every day she stays will increase the size of subsequent Labour majority’.
The DUP itself is riven with contradictions on the issue of Brexit. It employs reactionary anti-foreigner rhetoric on Brexit but is actually deeply concerned about the impact across Ireland on the business interests of its own leaders. The Tories may attempt to resolve this contradiction with cash, and threats to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. Out of necessity the Tories and DUP will try to cling to each other like limpets. They and their backers will do everything to prevent a Corbyn win at the next election.
For Labour the stakes are very high. It is well-placed to win the next election outright if it continues to address the major issues as effectively as it has done in this campaign, especially as it has recovered a foothold in Scotland.
The foremost issue remains living standards and the impact of Brexit, which will continue to dominate the economy and politics. With the pound falling once more after the Tories gamble failed, the decline in real incomes and wages will continue for some time. The Brexit negotiations will also increasingly reveal how jobs and living standards will be further damaged.
As Prof. John Curtice pointed out on election night, there was a clear correlation in the Remain vote and Labour’s strong showing in constituencies. In effect, Labour attracted large swathes of the Remain vote as well as holding onto to its own Leave voters.
Labour’s line is to oppose a ‘Hard Brexit’, any settlement that destroys jobs, undermines exports or investment and further erodes living standards. Labour argues for ‘tariff-free access’ to the Single Market or a Brexit that does not destroy jobs. In this campaign Labour advanced because it proposed to defend living standards and this approach will be needed in the period ahead to combat Brexit effects.
There can be no talk now of further coup attempts against the Corbyn leadership. His approach has been vindicated with a sharp rise in vote share and seats. The parties of Hard Brexit, Tories and UKIP lost a combined 5.3 per cent from the 2015 general election. Their combined total was just 44.3 per cent, sharply lower than the 51.9 per cent of the Leave vote in the referendum. As the population experiences the effects of Brexit it is increasingly rejecting it, or at least anything that blocks access to the Single Market.
This was particularly the case in Scotland. The SNP’s support independence runs up against a similar problem to Brexit. Being cut off from any country’s major export market can only lower living standards. As a result, the SNP lost ground to all the pro-Union parties, Tories, Labour and LibDems. But Labour’s genuine anti-austerity agenda lays the basis for further gains, on condition that Scottish Labour abandons attacks on living standards such as the proposed rise in income tax and instead opts for the Corbyn approach to investment and redistribution.
The Lib Dems were unable to make any headway in the election, because they relied solely on opposition to Brexit without any opposition to austerity or lower living standards. Voters understand that the Lib Dems will not defend their incomes. ‘Oppose Brexit and legalise cannabis’ in reality the content of the Lib Dem campaign, does not defend living standards. In fact, they see the EU as the vital instrument for further austerity, rather than national institutions.
Labour fought its best campaign for generations and advanced on all fronts. It defeated the May project of demanding an enormous blank cheque for further attacks on the working class. It was widely seen as the defender of living standards. There is a growing majority that rejects the Tory Hard Brexit. If Labour can continue to place itself at the head of that majority, it will be in a strong position to win the next election.