David Cameron leaves Downing Street. Photo: Getty Images
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Even in victory, the Conservatives must continue to reach out to Labour voters

The election victory is an opportunity to speak not just to those voters who re-elected the Tories, but to those who stuck with Labour, says Daniel Kawczynski.

Clement Attlee’s wife Violet was a staunch Conservative supporter. The most heart-rending note of condolence David Blunkett received when his guide dog Teddy died came from Margaret Thatcher. And it was Lord Tebbit, of all people, who took the trouble to praise Ed Balls for his magnanimity in defeat in the early hours of May 8.

It is still possible for grudging respect  – even real affection – to transcend party affiliations within the environs of Westminster, but it is today all too rare a quality. MPs who had seen service in the Second World War had a much greater sense of perspective – in the face of a common enemy, unbreakable bonds had been formed between Socialists and Tories – but, since then, the business of politics has become depressingly tribal, if not downright petty and mean-spirited. 

Blame it if you like on the emergence of the professional political classes – people who have held no jobs outside of politics and whose salaries and careers depend entirely on adherence to party lines on every issue – but it is quite clear that this degree of obsessive single-mindedness in the modern House of Commons by no means reflects the character of the electorate.

For that matter, I doubt if the country’s two most politically partisan “red top” newspapers – the Mirror and the Sun – can be said to talk for their readers, either, certainly not at all times, on every subject. Indeed, a Mirror journalist confided in me that her paper’s internal market research had shown how many of the paper’s readers were Ukip supporters. Stephen Glover, the media pundit, retailed an interesting statistic the other day based on a YouGov poll: the Daily Mail happens to have 464,000 Labour voters among its readers.

Even the most tribal MPs at Westminster must quietly have to concede that a whole succession of issues - like the Iraq war, the police’s handling of the Jean Charles De Menezes affair, not to mention Gordon Brown’s strident call for “British jobs for British workers” – have all in their different ways challenged the old certainties and perhaps made a nonsense of them. Just as Chekhov said that no individual can ever be seen in terms of black and white, but only, at best, varying shades of grey, so, too, few, if any, of the people MPs represent these days can be categorised as being either perpetually red or blue.

So one can see why David Cameron is reviving the idea of “One Nation” Conservatism – he wants to lead a party that champions not just its own interests, but the whole country’s. This makes sense politically as well as emotionally. I think now more than ever that the Conservative Party – brought to office with 36.9 per cent of the electorate behind us – must reach out to Labour voters. Her Majesty’s Opposition, now seeking a new leader to succeed Ed Miliband, is plainly struggling to re-connect with popular public opinion.

Labour seemed to be aware during the last election that a lot of their policies were unpopular – certainly for anyone who wanted to improve his or her lot in life – but they were arrogant enough to believe that their brand was sufficiently strong that people would vote for them anyway. They were like an old-fashioned department store obliviously restocking their shelves with the same old lines that people had stopped buying at least a decade ago.

A party that was more responsive would have seen how the people they could normally count on for support had changed. The old moulds had been broken. I spoke on doorsteps in my own constituency during the last election to traditional Labour voters who did not believe, for instance, in increasing the national debt, who were not uncritical friends of the NHS, who had concerns about what they saw as a benefits culture that made laziness an all too easy option, and who wanted for themselves simply to get on in life without the State telling them peremptorily what to do. These were the people to whom Miliband had made absolutely no concessions.  

These people often possessed a view that must have appeared equally counter-intuitive to the Labour strategists on immigration. Gillian Duffy, the Labour voter from Rochdale, raised this issue in a way that was measured and reasonable when Gordon Brown so memorably encountered him during the 2010 general election campaign.  Ed Miliband’s inner circle was adamant, however, that nobody like Mrs Duffy should be allowed within a hundred miles of their man during the last campaign, a fact that I would contend showed to what extent they were in denial about what a lot of their core voters were thinking. These were the ones who believed, too, that their party had a Teflon coating that would make it completely resistant to Ukip on polling day: how wrong they turned out to be.

I believe therefore that the Prime Minister has a historic opportunity to embrace all those people who are, at least for now, out of sync with Labour and effectively disenfranchised – thoughtful, decent, patriotic citizens whose over-riding wish is to see the country run with compassion and humanity, but who reserve the right to think for themselves and reckon we can all do a lot more good in the world if we have money in our pockets. These are the people who have always been true to their own lights and have never lost their way. It’s not their fault that, for the time being at least, their party has.

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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred