The Progressive Post

Britain: Turbulent Tories at the helm

Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Salford. Socialism in Britain since 1884 (Oxford, 1990) and The Retreat of Social Democracy (Manchester, 2000) are among the major works that he has written.
18/01/2017

The UK government entered the Brexit negotiations on 19th June lacking a Parliamentary majority, thanks to a snap general election which was held less than two weeks earlier. Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, called the election to exploit the huge opinion poll lead which she and her party had held over Jeremy Corbyn and Labour for most of the time since September 2015, when Corbyn first became leader of the Opposition. All of the prominent political pundits of the press and broadcast media expected a landslide Conservative victory.

The UK government entered Brexit negotiations with its EU counterparts on 19th June lacking a parliamentary majority thanks to a snap general election which was held less than two weeks earlier. Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, called the election to exploit the huge opinion poll lead which she and her party had held over Jeremy Corbyn and Labour for most of the period since September 2015, when Corbyn first became leader of the Opposition. All of the prominent political pundits in the press and broadcast media expected a landslide Conservative victory.
Since the general election no totally convincing narrative has emerged to explain exactly what happened. All are agreed that May ran a singularly inept campaign which highlighted her personal shortcomings. By contrast Corbyn was relaxed and fluent, especially in the company of voters on the street, but also in the televised debates which May refused to join. Labour’s manifesto focused on social and economic issues rather than Brexit and these spoke to widespread discontent with degraded public services, stagnant or falling incomes and growing inequality. The Conservative manifesto also talked about ‘burning injustices’, lack of workplace rights, the need for decent pay and even a modern industrial strategy. None of this featured prominently in May’s campaign. The manifesto is evidence, however, that the Government was perfectly aware of the salience of such issues.
Calling unscheduled general elections may raise apprehensions about what comes next. What anticipated problems require such distasteful medicine that the Government needs a bigger majority than the one it already has to retain its parliamentary ascendancy and face down dissent? The outcomes of the Brexit negotiations and the economic uncertainties of the immediate future are full of potential in these regards. The ongoing public expenditure cuts, the rising rate of inflation, the shortage of houses and affordable rented properties and the public-sector wage freeze – all these certain problems point to future political turbulence. In health, education, policing, prisons and local government the perception is that services have already been cut to the bone. The ideological project to cut the state sector and reduce or eliminate regulatory structures constraining ‘free markets’, which the Conservative Party embraced in the 1970s, is occasionally revealed to have much further to go. No acceptable deal with the EU, it was threatened by May and her Chancellor Philip Hammond in January 2017, and the UK would go much further in the direction of cheap labour, low wages, fewer workers’ rights and lower business taxes. But this was only to echo aspirations which leading figures within the Conservative Party are known to nurture and occasionally give vent to. Andrea Leadsom, for example, a leadership contender in 2016, was quite clear when speaking to the House of Commons in 2012 that small businesses should endure no employment regulations whatsoever. For the Conservative Brexiteers the great prize of leaving the EU is to be free of all such regulations which are held to constrain market forces and dilute the UK’s comparative economic advantage.
The Labour Party has had enduring problems since 2010, stemming from the fact that, under Tony Blair, it travelled in the same direction as the Conservatives in many areas of policy over the previous 13 years in government. Blair embraced flexible labour markets, presided over growing inequality with equanimity, distanced Labour from the trade unions and celebrated the dynamism of markets, especially the finance markets. He also alienated many Labour voters because of his enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq and his failure to acknowledge, let alone stem, the tide of immigration. When the global financial crisis unfolded, Labour was unable to effectively challenge the Conservative narrative that a large share of the blame was attached to Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown. Defeat in the general elections of 2010 and 2015 saw most of the leading Blairites walk away from UK politics. The remainder could not identify an alternative vision to that of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010-15. When Ed Miliband resigned the Labour leadership in 2015, Corbyn emerged as the only contender capable of generating support among the membership, which surged in response to his campaign and now stands at more than 500,000.
On June 8th 2017 Corbyn increased Labour’s share of the vote to 40 per cent, the highest vote share for an Opposition since 1970. The 9.6 per cent increase in vote share was Labour’s largest increase in a general election since 1945. Even so, the election also witnessed the largest Conservative Party share of the vote since 1983. It remains in Government, though weakened, and reigned in for the moment.

photo: Shutterstock/Claudio Divizia

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