Morning call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's newspapers

1. If politicians want to be trusted again, they must learn to listen (Daily Telegraph)

Jeremy Hunt MP, the Tory shadow culture secretary, argues that the internet decentralises power, giving people more control over their lives and allowing them to hold their leaders to account.

2. Justice in pay packets starts at the top. Across the board (Guardian)

Finally, moves are afoot to restrain out-of-control salaries -- in the public sector. But the problem orginates with private firms. Polly Toynbee argues for restrictions across the board, and greater respect for public-sector workers.

3. Voters will always go for Santa, not Scrooge (Times)

Optimism and pessimism will be the dividing line for the next election, argues Rachel Sylvester, looking at Cameron's and Brown's approaches so far.

4. The familiar road to failure in Afghanistan (Financial Times)

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the former ambassador to Moscow, says Britain must learn the lessons of history in Afghanistan: no one has explained convincingly why we should succeed where the Russians and, previously, the British themselves failed, or why the war will prevent terrorism at home.

5. David Cameron needs to reclaim the centre ground (Independent)

The latest ComRes poll in today's Independent shows that voters still view the Tories as out of touch. The leading article argues that this is because the Conservative message has become increasingly contradictory.

6. Copenhagen: well that made us think, didn't it? (Times)

Agreement was always going to be almost impossible, says David Aaronovitch. But it wasn't a waste of time: it gave us a crash course in eco-education, presenting us with a "map of where we really are" and what needs to be done.

7. If you want to know who's to blame for Copenhagen, look to the US Senate (Guardian)

George Monbiot is less positive, arguing that Barack Obama's attempt to put China in the frame for failure had its origins in the absence of US campaign finance reform. China made problems, but equally the US "demanded concessions while offering nothing".

8. Time to take off the blinkers in business class (Financial Times)

There cannot be one rule for the banks and another for the rest of society, says Michael Skapinker. The banks -- which have behaved petulantly -- must show why they are necessary.

9. Where have all the big beasts gone? (Independent)

Even when Labour was slaughtered in 1983, it had a galaxy of stars and potential leaders. Steve Richards discusses the dearth of stars, which he blames on a lack of party conviction.

10. Factory schools don't give real education (Times)

A ten-hour day could close the attainment gap between state and private, but only if used well, says Anthony Seldon, discussing a scheme by the Sutton Trust to improve the education of those from deprived backgrounds.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition