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Leader: Britain deserves better

On the eve of a new decade, there is an acute need for an alternative political and economic settlement that no party at present represents

This general election has been described as the most pivotal since Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 heralded the new right’s counter-revolution against the postwar consensus. If the Conservatives win a comfortable majority on 12 December, Britain will leave the European Union and Remainers campaigning for a second referendum will have been defeated. The Labour Party is likely to be immersed in another civil war as the Corbynites seek to maintain control. Beyond Westminster, the United Kingdom, already a fragile multinational construct, will be roiled by a succession of constitutional crises.

For such a defining election, the campaign has revealed the dismal state of our hyperpartisan media-political culture. Both main party leaders are profoundly unpopular (as revealed by their personal poll ratings) and their moral integrity has been compromised by their past actions and associations. Many voters despair at the choice before them.

It has been Britain’s misfortune, at such a conjuncture, to be led by Mr Johnson. Throughout his media and political careers, he has been revealed as a huckster and populist manipulator, and yet he is impervious to personal criticism and seems able to reach out to voters beyond his class politics.

Mr Johnson has often been underestimated in a long career as a flamboyant controversialist. He has no coherent politics or consistent world-view and is driven by monstrous ambition. As a biographer of Winston Churchill, he believes in the great man theory of history. And now he has the job he always wanted – and the joke is on us.

In office, Mr Johnson has transformed the Conservative Party from a broad church into a Leave sect by removing the whip from 21 Tory MPs, including nine former cabinet ministers. He unlawfully prorogued parliament in a shameless attempt to deny MPs the right to debate Brexit. And he dismissed concerns over his inflammatory language – three years after the murder of the MP Jo Cox – as “humbug”.

The supposed “party of the economy” is now pursuing a Brexit deal that the government’s own forecasts suggest will reduce growth by as much as 6.7 per cent of GDP (£130bn) between 2020 and 2034, leaving the average person £2,250 a year poorer. The supposed “party of the Union” is now proposing to establish a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Mr Johnson’s repeated insistence that a Conservative government will “get Brexit done” should deceive nobody. His vow to achieve a comprehensive new trade deal with the EU by December 2020 is unachievable. Either the UK will sign an inadequate agreement, or none at all, or it will be forced to seek an extension (the average trade negotiation lasts at least four years). This is the truth of the matter.

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Under Mr Johnson, the Conservatives have belatedly abandoned austerity by vowing to end all cuts to public services and to borrow for investment. This shift should be welcomed. As we have argued since the former chancellor George Osborne first declared an “age of austerity” in 2009, the government’s programme of cuts has been self-defeating and socially destructive. Austerity has enfeebled the public realm and sowed economic and social discontent.

The slowest economic recovery in history has been accompanied by a 169 per cent rise in rough sleeping, record levels of in-work poverty and ever-higher food bank usage (823,145 parcels were distributed by the Trussell Trust between April and September this year).

Having long publicly supported austerity, Mr Johnson now insists that he privately argued that it was “not the right way forward”. Just as Mr Osborne’s Keynesian opponents once did, Conservative ministers now say that the state can afford to borrow at ultra-low interest rates. But the government’s shift should not be overstated. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned, even by 2023-24, day-to-day spending on public services outside health will still be almost 15 per cent lower in real terms than it was at the start of the 2010s. It would be a travesty if, after a decade of destructive austerity, the Conservatives were rewarded with another majority.

Mr Johnson’s partial embrace of big government owes more to opportunism than to any principled commitment to the protective state: he will say and do whatever is necessary, especially as the Conservatives are intent on winning seats in Labour’s Brexit-voting heartlands. But his politics is one of oligarchy and demagogy.

The Conservatives’ weaknesses and divisions have presented Labour with a huge electoral opportunity. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn was dismissed as a doomed opposition leader. During this campaign, he has been scrutinised as a potential prime minister.

Mr Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015 unlocked something long repressed on the left. Here was a politician, first elected as an MP in 1983, who came from the fringes of the parliamentary party having spent his career pursuing radical causes. Most of his colleagues dismissed him as a crank. And yet he unequivocally rejected neoliberalism and austerity and spoke a language of principle that many young people had not heard before from a mainstream politician. He inspired a movement – Corbynism – and membership of the Labour Party surged to 564,443 before falling back to 485,000 owing to the leadership’s ambiguous position on Brexit. In 2017, Mr Corbyn’s campaign deprived the Conservatives of their hard-won majority. And as shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, Mr Corbyn’s long-time ally who is interviewed in this week's magazine, has rightly challenged the orthodoxy that the private sector is inherently superior to the state.

Labour deserves credit for offering a deeply divided and unequal country a bold manifesto. Proposals such as a Green Industrial Revolution, opposing Boris Johnson’s prospective US trade deal and nationalising broadband, the railways and water companies are worthy of serious consideration. They represent ambition and creativity of a kind that has all too often been absent from British politics.

Labour has rightly chipped away at the edifice of “capitalist realism”, the term the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher used to describe the sense that “not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system… it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”.

But the essential judgement that must be made is on Mr Corbyn himself. His reluctance to apologise for the anti-Semitism in Labour and to take a stance on Brexit, the biggest issue facing the country, make him unfit to be prime minister.

In response to anti-Semitism, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a body established by the last Labour government, has launched a formal investigation of a political party for only the second time in its history (the first being the fascist British National Party). The chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, and the Jewish Chronicle have issued unprecedented warnings about Mr Corbyn to the electorate. The Jewish Labour Movement, for the first time in its history, has refused to endorse the party and will only campaign for “exceptional candidates”.

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We have no reason to quarrel with their judgement. As Anthony Julius, a senior lawyer and academic, wrote to the historian Richard Evans in an open letter on the New Statesman: “A party that cannot be trusted in relation to Jews cannot be trusted at all.” (Professor Evans subsequently retracted his support for Labour.)

Faced with an unpalatable choice between Mr Johnson or Mr Corbyn as prime minister, some maintain that there is a third way: the Liberal Democrats. But under new leader Jo Swinson, the party has had an uninspiring campaign. Its vow to cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50 has rightly been rejected by even Remainers as illiberal and undemocratic. And though presented with a rare electoral opening, the party of Gladstone, Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge has shown little intellectual ambition or dynamism.

By contrast, the Green Party’s 34-year campaign to alert the British electorate to the crises of climate change and environmental devastation now appears prescient. While the party itself is not in a position to govern, the climate crisis will become the defining issue in global politics in the near future and we would welcome more Green MPs.

Yet for the reasons outlined, we have resolved to endorse no party at this general election. As a publication that is beholden to no party or faction, that defends the intellectual traditions of scepticism, independence of thought, the spirit of criticism and a willingness to debate, we believe that voters deserve better.

However, we are not without hope of meaningful change and urge all our readers to vote, tactically if necessary, to deprive Mr Johnson’s hard Brexit Conservatives of a majority. There are many fine parliamentarians from all parties – Luciana Berger, Joanna Cherry, Jess Phillips, Rosie Duffield, Jim McMahon, Dan Jarvis, Sarah Wollaston, Rachel Reeves, to name only a few – whose fortitude and resilience are admirable. And this at a time when MPs, especially women, are subjected to the most appalling intimidation and abuse. Readers should judge their local candidate on his or her merits and commitment to social reforms, to green public investment, to civic values and to progressive politics.

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On the eve of a new decade, there is an acute need for an alternative political and economic settlement that no party at present adequately represents. Moments of national renewal are never smooth or painless. The first step is to accept the new paradigm, which is the end of the Blairite/Cameroon version of liberal capitalism. After a decade of austerity, the state is returning to its primary function, which is the provision of security, as the philosopher John Gray has written in these pages. We believe in an interventionist, even moral state; in the efficacy and compensatory functions of the state to protect especially the most vulnerable against the damage inflicted on societies by free markets and globalisation. This should be complemented by the renewal of civil society and the intermediary institutions that lie between the market and the state: family networks, friendly societies, cooperatives and religious and charitable bodies.

The Brexit debacle has demonstrated the need to reform the United Kingdom’s anachronistic constitutional model. A new settlement should encompass the replacement of the House of Lords, a more proportional voting system and even a written constitution. If the Union is to survive it must be reconfigured and new relationships established among the nations and regions of these islands. In a new era of great power blocs, Britain must have a “realist” foreign policy. It should combine a clear-eyed defence of the national interest with a desire to remain within the European sphere of influence, while also defending and renewing the multilateral, rules-based order.

Perhaps, above all, a new politics for the 2020s must cultivate a civic patriotism that is inclusive and generous, rather than sour and resentful, and that reaffirms the value of the common good. Decency, pragmatism, humility, reciprocity, environmentalism, social responsibility, social justice and the protective state – these should be the values that shape the new political dispensation. The election will not open the way for this alternative settlement. But it has confirmed the profound need for it as an era comes to an end.

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want