Labour still don’t have a clue

The opposition can keep telling themselves that Cameron is a closet Thatcherite – but it won’t make

What's going to stop Labour from winning the next election is that, six years in, they still don't know who and what they're fighting. And since the next election could be a lot sooner than 2015, this is the gift that keeps on giving for the right. Before Ed Miliband can convince the public about himself, he needs to be convincing about David Cameron – and that's never going to happen for as long as the left keep kidding only themselves that the Tory leader is a closet Thatcherite.

It's hard to see on the face of it what the evidence is for this piece of wishful groupthink. Even with a crypto-Keynesian like Ed Balls as shadow chancellor rather than the more Blairite figure of Alan Johnson, it's the scale of the economic consensus that ought to stagger us and not the, in truth, marginal cross-party divisions, which are hyped up for despatch box effect.

But then what else is there? Whatever the Guardian wistfully hopes about right-wing economics leading to heroin-dealing nurses, selling mush like the "big society" as a threat to voters is surely a fantasy too far. If even Tory MPs who approvingly spout "big society" platitudes can't put any details on the warm feelings, it's improbable that Tom Baldwin's going to.

At every turn the government is exactly what Cameron hoped it would be – liberal. It's liberal in its social mores, it's at least as windily green as Labour, and it's pro-European. Many on the Tory right would say it's unarguably been so ever since Cameron broke his "cast-iron guarantee" that there would be a referendum on Lisbon. Yet like it or not, topped up by 50 Lib Dem MPs, the coalition also inescapably seems to people uninterested in politics to be that bit more liberal than a Tory-only government would have looked and sounded. Insisting that the government is not what the public plainly thinks it is, is a strategy Labour can try, but why's it going to work?

You can't even hope for a Thatcherite tone from this regime. There hasn't yet been a fight that Cameron hasn't run away from: from an abject refusal to milk-snatch to being pistol-whipped by Mumsnet, this Prime Minister will limbo under any tabloid headline held in front of him. So all Labour is doing now is repeating Steve Hilton's Demon Eyes mistake. Telling voters what they know to be untrue – "this man is a ravenous right-wing ideologue" – makes Labour seem incredible, and not in the good way.

Instead of crying wolf and inevitably being caught out for doing so, why not take a leaf out of the Clinton playbook? If Labour wants to exacerbate Cameron's undoubted party management problems, why not triangulate? Why not explicitly offer him support for his most obviously progressive and liberal measures? That's the way to push the Tory right over the edge. And as things stand, it's only they who are going to unseat Cameron any time soon.

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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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