As the Tories remain hopelessly divided, Labour is speaking for the majority

Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has avoided the errors of its pro-austerity European sister parties. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Tory party continues to mainly negotiate with itself. Florence was an awfully long way for Theresa May to go to say not very much. The Prime Minister's much-hyped speech proved to be yet another exercise in Tory party management, not at all designed to advance the Brexit negotiations.

But the Conservative crisis is not an isolated case. Since the financial crash of 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, traditional parties of left and right in Western Europe have been in turmoil. This is a radically different political picture to the beginning of this century, when many of Labour’s sister parties were in government.

Fast forward to recent history and former French President François Hollande was not even in office during the crisis. But by this year his poll ratings were so low that he did not even dare seek re-election. 

Hollande did not cause the economic crisis in France. It began at least four years earlier and gripped all the Western economies. But he did implement austerity, and increasingly turned on the trade unions who opposed further cuts in jobs, wages and pensions to "pay for it". By contrast, the German government barely implemented any austerity measures and living standards continued to rise.

This is the key to the political crisis in Europe. The annihilation of the formerly dominant PASOK in Greece was the most extreme example of a general trend. Parties that implemented policies which reduced living standards became increasingly unpopular, sometimes spectacularly so.

This affected both the left and the right. But the latter resorted to an age-old instinct, which is to scapegoat and demonise. Foreigners, black people, migrants, Muslims and Jews were all in the firing line, blamed for an economic crisis they did not cause. Frequently, wholly new parties were created to capitalise on this growing sentiment.

Sometimes these new formations posed a serious difficulty for the traditional parties of the right. Nowhere is this more true than in the UK, where, under pressure from their right, the Tories have adopted the language and anti-migrant stance of Ukip. As a result, they are unable to agree a coherent position on Brexit among themselves, let alone reach agreement with the EU 27. Some want to prioritise blocking immigration, others want to do whatever suits big business. And so, as the Brexit charabanc heads over the cliff edge, the Tories continue to argue over who is at the wheel.

By contrast, Labour has not fallen into the trap that the French Socialists and the Dutch Labour Party jumped into, implementing austerity and echoing the right’s anti-Muslim, anti-migrant propaganda. In 2017, both parties won just 6 per cent of the vote. It is possible that the combined vote for the traditional French, Dutch and German centre-left parties may be less than Jeremy Corbyn’s 40 percent.

Labour’s policy is resolutely anti-austerity. At the same time, we have opposed the Tory drive to blame migrants and others for the government's own economic failings. These were the pillars of our great advance in June this year. As we build on those economic policies and oppose all efforts to demonise migrants and others, Labour is in a position to win a clear overall majority at the next election - whenever it comes.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health.