A new problem: how will mainstream politics respond to the rising age of anger? With Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister and Keir Starmer as opposition leader, Britain’s Westminster leadership is not centrist, but it is tilting increasingly towards the centre ground as both main parties prepare for the next election. Which is pretty much what you would expect. But the centre may not appeal to voters who now find themselves poorer and who are increasingly scared about how they pay basic bills.
Everything is complicated by the absence of a coherent political story about where Britain is going. You can’t lead without a narrative. An under-discussed consequence of the fall of Liz Truss has been the destruction of Brexit as a serious domestic project – a story, if you like.
There was never much point in leaving the EU, with all the friction and problems surrounding that decision, unless it was part of a bigger political vision.
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Most recently a move away from continental social democracy, caricatured as Singapore-on-Thames, meant slashing taxes and regulations in a dash for growth. This autumn that short-cut delusion was shattered. Which, in turn, leaves true Brexit-believers scratching their heads. If it wasn’t for what Kwasi Kwarteng called “a new era” in his infamous mini-Budget, what was it for?
Their puzzle goes wider than tax policy: wider, even, than the November bonfire of EU regulations the Truss administration had been preparing. One of the very few post-EU big ideas that had been announced was to splatter Britain with low-tax, low-regulation enterprise zones – sending in high-altitude deregulation bombers, as it were, to target some of Britain’s most deprived and Brexit-supporting areas.
Whether you think this would work, kick-starting companies in the places that need them most, or would simply divert employment from other areas, it was a biggish idea. But now Michael Gove, once again the Levelling Up Secretary, is suggesting that since balancing the books is back in fashion, it also might have to go.
Politically, that’s not surprising. Among the zones’ antagonists were groups worried about the damage to wildlife and environmental laws in the many relevant areas. The National Trust has a membership of nearly 6 million, the Wildlife Trusts just under 1 million and the RSPB 1.2 million. These memberships have considerable overlap with the Conservative Party. Taking on such bodies was a sure way to lose yet another few counties’ worth of Conservative seats.
But the story is more interesting still. As the economic squeeze takes hold, we are already seeing the interment of ambitious house-building and infrastructure promises – the last of Johnsonism. Ministers deny this, but in parliament Tory Nimbys are becoming bolder and more vocal; the former chief whip Wendy Morton has complained about 8,000 new houses “being dumped in [her] constituency”.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Directors has published a poll showing that 47 per cent of businesses are still finding Brexit challenging.
So of the great Conservative Brexit vision for a new Britain, what’s left? What of tighter controls over immigration, which have been in the press again after revelations in the Commons about the disgusting conditions in the holding camp for migrants at the former RAF base of Manston in Kent, and the soaring cost of housing refugees in hotel accommodation? Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, spoke of an “invasion” of the southern coast by small boats.
Channel migration is a problem caused by global push-factors, poor relations with France and incompetence at the Home Office. This year the predicted figure for migrants coming by boat is more than 50,000, up from 28,500 last year and, by comparison, only a few hundred in 2018. They include some of the most vulnerable people on Earth; and also some 10,000 single Albanian men, many of whom security officials reportedly fear are heading for criminal gangs operating in the UK. No one has a quick answer. There isn’t one.
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To talk of “invasion”, however, is deliberately loaded language, gleefully accepted by the far right. It is one way, I suppose, for Sunak’s Conservatives to address rising anger about the state of the country. But it isn’t going to work, and most of them know it. It isn’t going to calm anyone about rising unemployment, lower real wages and shrinking public services. I don’t believe for a second the new Prime Minister approves of it; sooner or later he’s going to have to risk angering right-wing MPs and sack Braverman.
But the popular anger about the state of England (mainly) that drove Brexit has not vanished on holiday with Boris Johnson. It has lost its rambunctious, boosterish figurehead and it has lost the fantasy promises of Truss radicalism. The emotion is there, the responses aren’t. It isn’t surprising that parties to the right of the Tories are excited by new opportunities ahead.
Here is a further bleak prediction, which I make nervously: we may see a revival of racist extremism. We’ve had a rerun of almost everything else from the 1970s, when the rise of the National Front coincided with unpopular mainstream politics and depressing economic decline. Is there any particular reason why that might not be revisited upon us too? The elevation of Sunak at Westminster has been greeted as a return to calm, politics as usual. I fear that outside Westminster, things still feel very different.
And, of course, these are also all dilemmas for Labour, increasingly the government-in-waiting. The shadow front bench is stronger, across the board, than the cabinet. But a Labour government would inherit a devil’s box of miseries – falling real wages, rising food, rental and fuel costs, a health service in crisis and the immediate impact of a new round of Conservative austerity. Add to this intense frustration and existential fear about the climate crisis and you have an all-systems-stop protest movement on almost every side. Question: how does the Labour front bench handle the dilemma of being required both to appeal to middle-ground voters, and to vocalise national rage?
Vocalise is the key word, for there’s no response that doesn’t involve eloquent storytelling. If you think that’s naive, check out Barack Obama lacerating Republicans over social security in Milwaukee on 29 October – a snippet easily accessible online and five minutes of pure adrenaline.
In Britain, meanwhile, the centre-left still needs a vivid story. I was recently talking to the US pollster Frank Luntz. He had been interviewing young Britons and was horrified by the extent of their distaste, even contempt, for the United Kingdom – our history, institutions and political culture. This is not a problem just for Conservatives, but one that will be inherited by Labour: there can be no progressive politics without optimism.
There is a story familiar to most NS readers, rooted in the progressive tradition of the past two centuries: the trade union and cooperative movements, and the slew of reforms by successive Labour governments from the 1940s to the early 2000s. But it has become stale, kept from the daylight. Younger voters know almost nothing about it. All they hear is grey-haired politicians talking about responsibility.
The next election isn’t in the bag. Looking merely at the economics, we must expect a time of rage and pessimism. There is no sign that the new Tory government has a coherent reply. But progressive politics needs to articulate its view of the good life, and the successful national community, with a fluent, angry conviction we haven’t heard yet.
And the time is now.
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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak