In this week’s New Statesman: Dinosaurs vs modernisers

David Skelton: what the conservative modernisers must do next. PLUS: George Eaton on council tax reform, Rafael Behr on Miliband and the EU, and Ian Sansom pens an ode to paper.

David Skelton: What’s wrong with the Tory Party?

In our cover story this week, David Skelton – director of Policy Exchange – argues that David Cameron’s “modernisation” project did not go far enough. To return to power and win a majority in parliament, the Conservatives must learn to reconnect with the north and ordinary working voters. He describes how the public thinks that the Tories are “out of touch” and are “a party for the rich” – and outlines what they should do next.

When he became leader of the Tory party, David Cameron said that it had to “change to win”. He noted that the Tories had been stuck on about 33 per cent of the vote for many years. And that is exactly where they are in the polls now. Cameron has rescued his party from the scrapheap once, but his modernisation is still a job half done.

Last year, Policy Exchange and YouGov carried out a major polling exercise about what voters want, and there are lessons from it for all the main parties. For the Conservatives, it highlights four (overlapping) ways in which the party needs to do better:

First, they need to do better outside their southern heartland . . .

Second, they need to do better in urban areas . . .

Third, the Conservatives do badly among ethnic minorities . . .

Finally, the Conservatives need to do better among ordinary working people. Polls show two-thirds of voters agree that “the Conservative Party looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people”.

Skelton argues that cutting the cost of living – particularly housing costs – is the best way for the party to win back the working-class vote:

Driving down the cost of living should be one of the core ideas of Tory modernisers. Cutting tax for low earners, reducing the cost of living and reducing unemployment are the main ways it could shake off the tag.

The biggest cost of all for most people is housing. Rents are still rising sharply, and house prices have risen three times faster than wages over the past decade. The average age of a first-time buyer is now 37. Reviving housebuilding is also crucial to getting the economy moving.

We could also learn from the Continent. In France and Germany people have the right to buy a plot of land on which to build a house. For the millions of people priced out of owning their own home, a “right to build your own house” could have the same political impact as the “right to buy” did in the 1980s.

 

Rafael Behr: Ed Miliband is about to have the burden of defending the EU foisted on him. Is he ready?

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr writes on Ed Miliband and the EU. The Labour leader has been called “perhaps Labour’s most pro-European leader ever”; he has no intention of matching the Prime Minister’s commitment to a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU. But can Miliband afford to become “Britain’s lead advocate for the status quo” when even “the mistiest-eyed Europhile” can see that the EU needs reform? Read his column in full on the NS website now.

 

George Eaton: Is this the coalition’s poll tax moment?

In Observations, George Eaton writes that the coalition’s reform of the council-tax system risks provoking a poll-tax-style revolt. The government has cut the fund for Council Tax Benefit by 10 per cent and millions of households will be forced to pay the charge for the first time.

Because the government has stipulated that the state must maintain current levels of support for pensioners, the burden will fall entirely on the working-age poor, many of whom are already facing large cuts to their benefits. Read his piece in full on the NS website now.

 

Ian Sansom: Bury me in paper

In the NS Essay this week Ian Sansom, author of Paper: an Elegy, writes a sweeping ode to the ‘Zelig of all materials’, and asks how printed matter will fare in the digital age. He begins:

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story that has not been told enough, and that we need to remind ourselves of as we grow ever further from its simple meanings and its truth. It is a creation story…

The story begins around 105AD with our eunuch, Cai Lun, a court official of the Han Dynasty, reporting on an invention that used mashed-up tree bark to produce an extraordinary material. Macerated bark fibres, says Cai Lun, are being mixed with water in a vat, into which a mesh or mould is dipped and from which the excess liquid is drained; the resulting pulpy mass is then hung to dry. This thing, this thin white precious thing, is – of course! – paper. And the story paper tells is the story of civilisation.

As we are weighed down with our ever-proliferating items of corporatised, licensable digital kit, and become ever more like anthro-info-conduits – walking, talking human slurry pits of undigested data – it is often easy to forget that paper was and is and is likely to remain the most ubiquitous, the most useful and also the most easily recyclable of man-made communication devices. Indeed, paper is still the ancient communication device that all modern communication devices seek, pathetically, to emulate: cheap to make and easy to inscribe; durable, readable, portable, disposable; the screen as the ultimate page.

But that is not all. Paper is and always has been more than just a medium for commu­nication. It’s more than just the archetypal data storage system. It has a much darker, stranger, more profound history. It performs numerous other obvious and important roles in our lives, roles that our tablets ande-readers and smartphones can’t even begin to emulate or adopt. What is the biggest difference between an iPad and a notepad? Honestly? Seriously? You can’t wipe your arse with an iPad – not yet. Paper still reaches the parts that other products cannot reach.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

Mark Leonard: The affluence trap

Our reporter at large Mark Leonard writes an extended report on the new China, transformed by wealth and social upheaval. We used to think that as the Chinese grew richer they would become more like us in the west. But now, at the peak of unprecedented growth in China, internal disputes are stirring. What are the consequences for the country and the world? Leonard writes:

For most of the past 30 years, China’s leaders have been kept awake at night by worries about their country’s poverty and the problems of a socialist economy. Today, it is China’s affluence and the problems of the market that are causing sleepless nights . . .

Last year began with a series of powerful signals of change. In February, the World Bank and the Chinese Development Research Centre released a report on the country in 2030, calling for a wave of market reforms; in March, a village in Guangdong was allowed to hold an election, having ousted officials suspected of selling off communal land at artificially low prices . . .

Since the global financial meltdown in 2008, China’s intellectuals have diagnosed a crisis of success. Each of the three goals of Deng’s era – affluence, stability and power – is seen as the source of new problems... China 3.0 will be defined by a search for solutions to these three crises.

Laurie Penny: In the red

Laurie Penny writes this week about the fallout from the Leveson inquiry, the Hacked Off report, and why “good journalism is as necessary as ever”:

The British press is about to change for ever but that’s no thanks to the Leveson report. After another round of back-room, minute-less meetings between ministers and managing editors, it has become clear that the bland tome of equivocation and suggestion that was the ultimate result of a media and parliamentary corruption scandal that nearly brought down the UK government is going to make almost no difference.

In 2013, the Murdoch media empire continues to profit from the muckraking, misogyny and celebrity-gossip dross that it uses to buy and sell electoral influence to the highest bidder; Jeremy Hunt is still in the cabinet and David Cameron remains Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Jonnie Marbles went to jail for throwing a plate of shaving foam at an aged media baron and I’m beginning to suspect that he might have had the right idea all along. This was our Watergate and the political establishment has been allowed to wipe its hands on its trousers and walk away.

In The Critics

  • In Books, the Conservative peer and former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd reviews Britain’s Quest for a Role, a memoir by the former diplomat David Hannay.
  • Our critic at large this week is Ryan Gilbey, who writes about Steven Spielberg’s landmark biopic Lincoln, released in UK cinemas on 25 January.
  • Rachel Cooke watches the Danish political drama Borgen and wonders what all the fuss is about.
  • Our pop critic Kate Mossman writes on David Bowie’s comeback, and in a seperate piece assesses the songs in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables.
  • Leo Hollis explores the ways in which digital technology is “mediat[ing] our experience of the city”.
  • Margaret Drabble reviews John Burnside’s short story collection Something Like Happy.
  • Helen Lewis finds precious little illumination in the pages of Anne H Putnam’s weight-loss memoir, Navel Gazing.
  • In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to George Saunders, master of the real voice, about his latest novel – Tenth of December.

Read more in our "In the Critics this week" feature on Cultural Capital.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: www.newstatesman.com/subscribe

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear