Boris Johnson should be very worried by Keir Starmer

In the middle of a pandemic, Sir Keir Starmer’s start as leader of the British Labour Party has been inevitably muted. The news is dominated by the epidemic and the government’s response. There isn’t much time for any opposition party. But in these early days the portents look very good for Labour. Its members have made a very good choice.

Most of the attention has been drawn to Sir Keir’s performance at the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). In the first two weeks the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was ill and could not attend. But instead of handing over to his deputy, as previous leaders have done, Sir Kier took it on himself. This was an interesting side-stepping of the usual parliamentary protocol games. And then when Mr Johnson did become available, he easily overwhelmed the prime minister. His style was quiet but focused. “Forensic” was the description universally used, referencing Sir Keir’s former job as QC and Director of Public Prosecutions. It is a style to which a bluffer like Mr Johnson partially ill-matched.

How much does PMQs matter in the great scheme of things? The public barely notices. But it damages the morale of Conservative backbenchers, and the pressure on an immature government team could lead to it to make silly errors. The idea floated by the government that all MPs should return to Westminster, so that the boisterous atmosphere of PMQs might be restored, and so make things look a bit less bad, looks to be just such a silly error.

A second portent comes from Sir Keir’s cleaning out of the front bench team. His predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, valued loyalty over competence and the front bench was full of weak performers. Sir Keir’s team looks much stronger, though the parliamentary Labour Party is not as strong as it once was, so choice is constrained. But Mr Johnson is also a loyalty over competence operator, and his own front bench looks particularly weak. Which for a “no-details” style of leadership is a big problem. Sir Keir’s aim is to challenge the government’s competence by contrasting it with his own.

A third, and highly significant portent comes from Sir Keir’s refusal to challenge the government on the Brexit transition. Many are saying that the transition period should be extended, not least because of the virus, as there is not enough time to negotiate a trade deal by the end of the year. It’s a fair line of attack, but Sir Keir’s failure to take it up shows that he is the first Labour leader since Tony Blair to have a clear sense of political strategy.

As opposition leader, Mr Blair was very careful to pick his fights with John Major’s Conservative government only on a very limited range of issues. His aim was to take the fight to the Conservatives and win over their former supporters. To that end he projected similar policies but superiority in style and competence. The next Labour opposition leaders were Ed Miliband and Mr Corbyn. Neither were prepared to take the challenge to the Tories. Instead they hoped to win by rounding up a “progressive majority” from Lib Dem and Green voters, and from people who had previously not voted. Anybody who supported the Tories was suspect, and the party did not want to make the compromises needed to win them over. Instead they challenged the government on a very broad front, portraying them as something close to evil. This motivated the activists. They succeeded in winning over many Lib Dems and Greens, and even (especially in 2017) bringing out previous non voters. But these were neutralised by people put off by their perceived extremism, who moved over to the Tories.

By showing restraint in his attacks on the Conservatives, on Brexit, and indeed on the Coronavirus crisis, Sir Keir shows that he has grasped this. The priority is to win power, and this can only be done by persuading former Conservative voters to come over. And it is particularly important not to put off people who support Brexit.

Let’s look ahead to see how this strategy might play out. The most likely scenario is that Mr Johnson’s government will muddle through the crisis, and intervene enough to limit the damage to the economy. In this event Sir Keir’s message will be “the same, only different”. He will pursue the government on issues of competence rather than policy. Mr Johnson looks very vulnerable here, and with a little luck his government could go into free fall like Mr Major’s, and never recover.

A second possibility is that the Conservatives will lurch to the right. After a hard Brexit, the government tries to roll back the extension to government seen as the crisis has developed, in the hope of creative destruction from which a leaner, healthier economy emerges in time for the next election. There are undoubtedly some Conservatives who want to go down this route. But it would be highly unpopular in the country at large. If this develops, then Sir Keir will broaden his attack to favour stronger public services as well as competence.

A third possibility is that the stress of the Coronavirus crisis causes the government to completely unravel, leading to a Conservative rebellion which results in a National Unity government involving Labour. This is after all what happened in both the world wars in the last century, when the prime minister (Asquith then Chamberlain) was perceived to be out of his depth. There is no Lloyd George or Churchill in the wings, though, so this does look rather unlikely. If this happens it will provide Sir Keir an opportunity to demonstrate fitness for government, while doubtless the Conservatives would tear themselves apart.

Should Labour leftists feel betrayal? Certainly they will see their wilder causes sidelined or squashed. Sir Keir has signalled a tough line on antisemitism; this covers those who criticise Israel obsessively while taking an indulgent approach to countries like Russia and Venezuela. But they should stay calm. Once in power it will be quite easy to tilt policy in a socialist direction in the aftermath of this crisis. Getting power is the main thing, and then consolidating it. Mr Blair and Gordon Brown showed the way. It is not widely appreciated on the left just how far Mr Brown in particular advanced the boundaries of the state and the cause of practical socialism.

How should Lib Dems react? it is commonplace to hear the thought that the party flourishes if Labour leadership is moderate, after the party failed to make much impression when Mr Corbyn was in charge. This is clutching at straws. If Sir Kei8r’s leadership develops as I expect, the Lib Dems’ only chance is if Sir Keir is indulgent towards the party because he thinks it could be useful. He might if he thinks that it could keep the Conservatives out of 20 or more seats that Labour would struggle to win themselves. He would certainly much rather deal with the party in a hung parliament than the Scottish Nationalists. The Lib Dems might get some political space around immigration, since Sir Keir will not want to open up too big a gap the Tories there. Brexit will be a more troublesome issue for the Lib Dems. Otherwise there will be little open space.

What you will not see is Sir Keir taking up electoral reform. He might duck and weave, as Mr Blair did, or he might rule it out. He will not want to distract attention from his core message that the Tories are not fit to govern.

Of course, in the early days of a new leader it is very easy to project your expectations onto him or her. Perhaps that is what I am doing here. But this is my working hypothesis, and Mr Johnson should be very afraid.

Strategy and tactics in British politics

In any longer term competitive activity it is useful to distinguish between strategy and tactics. This as true of politics as it is of anything else. It is surprising how few British political activists grasp the difference.

The current usage of the two words derives from the development of military theory in the 19th Century. Strategy focuses on long-term aims and how to achieve them. Tactics focuses on the here and now. Strategy guides your choice of which battles to fight; tactics help you win those battles. In politics strategy is mainly about identifying the coalition of voters you need to win and retain power. You then develop tactics to secure that coalition.

In British politics it is the Conservatives that grasp the usefulness of the distinction best. After 2005, its leader put into action a new strategy, which was to woo liberal-minded middle class voters to join the party’s existing base of conservative suburban and rural middle classes. This allowed it to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and then to win an outright majority by crushing that party in 2015, completely outmanoeuvring Labour. But to hold this shaky coalition together he had to promise a referendum on EU membership, which he lost, causing the collapse of his strategy. He sensibly bowed out. After Brexit the Conservatives, led by Theresa May, developed a new strategy. This was to bolster the rural and suburban core vote with Brexit-supporting lower middle-class and working class voters in the North, Midlands and Wales. The metropolitan middle classes would then be bullied into voting Tory by fear of Labour. This strategy seemed to be working in 2017, but Mrs May’s lousy tactical handling of the election in 2017 ended in failure. This election was a very good demonstration of the difference between strategy and tactics. Sound strategy was let down by bad tactics. When Boris Johnson took over from Mrs May last year, he retained her political strategy, but added much sharper tactical management to it. Aided by Labour’s strategic ineptitude, he was rewarded with a landslide last December.

Labour’s Tony Blair grasped the need for strategy very well. His strategy for Labour was to appeal to middle class voters while retaining its working class base. When he left the leadership in 2007, this strategy was getting stale, but his successor, Gordon Brown, had no clear alternative. Labour leaked metropolitan middle class votes both to the Tories and Lib Dems and lost. Since then Labour has shown little grasp of strategy and has preferred to focus on tactics instead. Ed Miliband’s strategy, inasmuch as there was one, seems to have been based on the idea of a “progressive majority”. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote, he reasoned, would be enough secure a winning coalition without the need to chase more conservative voters, as Mr Blair had. But the Lib Dem collapse favoured the Tories, not Labour, while in Scotland Labour was helpless facing the rise of the SNP. Under Jeremy Corbyn the party’s strategy was based more on hope than evidence; he assumed most voters were fed up with Tory austerity and angry about the way the rich seemed to be getting away with so much. There was also a hope that the party could bring in people who hadn’t voted before, especially younger voters. Alas for them they interpreted the relatively good result in 2017 as evidence of sound strategy. Labour instead strategised on what they would do if they won power – an area where Mr Blair was weak, as indeed have been most Conservative leaders. Political strategy and government strategy are different things.

Just how bad things are in Labour was illustrated by a remark of leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey. In her defence of Mr Corbyn’s record she said that the loss of the 2019 election was due to poor strategy. That’s a bit like saying that the result was down to weak leadership, and not the leader. Actually it is clear she actually meant “tactics” rather than “strategy”. Party activists, even senior officials, muddle the two up. It doesn’t help that most advisers on political tactics call themselves “strategists”.

The Lib Dems are no better than Labour on this. Nick Clegg, its leader in the 2010 election did seem to have some sort of strategy, which was to appeal to liberal-minded voters, and use coalition government to establish the party’s credentials as a serious political force, and so expand its voter base. This strategy collapsed on contact with reality after 2010, though poor tactical handling of the early coalition government didn’t help. By the 2015 election, the Lib Dems were reduced to fighting 30 seats as if they were by elections, so empty was their strategic appeal. Since then the party has remained consumed by tactical rather than strategic thinking, in particular with its focus on Brexit. But as the third party in a winner-takes-all electoral system, the party starts from a point of strategic weakness, so perhaps this is understandable.

A wider point needs to be made. The way I write about it suggests that political strategy is a matter of clever choices by senior party leaders, allowing them to lead a willing “army” to victory, rather as military strategy is a lot of the time. But political strategy involves compromises and pain. It is about identifying disparate coalitions of voters – but what you promise one part of the coalition will displease other parts. Mr Blair’s strategy so annoyed core metropolitan Labour support that he remains regarded as a traitor within the party. Mr Cameron’s coalition required the EU referendum to satisfy its core supporters, which came at a huge political cost. Tension within the new Tory coalition is obvious, especially over such matters as immigration policy.

The problem for Labour is that it has been, and probably still is, unable to face up to the compromises required to secure a winning coalition. Nothing very clear is coming from the leadership candidates. Lisa Nandy is best at articulating the problems, but is less clear on the painful choices Labour will need to make. Ms Long-Bailey still seems to hope that all Labour needs is sharper tactics. Kier Starmer says as little as he can about what he would actually do.

And the Lib Dems? What they do in large measure depends on the choices that the new Labour leadership does or does not make. Such is the lot of a third party.

Why is the left losing the argument in the country at large?

Nothing illustrates Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s failings more than his assertion that, at the last general election, his party “won the argument”. The party’s vote went down by 2.6 million. Any sense in which the party won an argument is so abstract as to be worse than useless. But not enough people on the left realise just how much trouble they are in.

While some on the left show shocking complacency, others exhibit a level of despair similar to that in 1992, after the Conservatives won their fourth successive victory (and proper victories, unlike 2010 and 2017) when voters fled from Labour and the Lib Dems at the last minute. If the Tories could win then, in such an unpromising election for them, it seemed to presage them winning forever. The journalist Will Hutton caught the mood with a political bestseller The State We’re In. In it he suggested that the Tories had so deeply penetrated civil society that they were unbeatable. He also decried Tory (and American) economic policies, while praising those of Germany and Japan. Only a few years later Labour won their biggest ever election victory and the Tories were knocked so far away from power that people dared to think they would never regain it. Meanwhile Germany and Japan plunged into an economic crisis from which, seemingly, only Anglo-Saxon economic policies could lift them. It is surprising that Mr Hutton dared to show his face in public again, but newspaper comment by him still pops up quite regularly.

The Labour and Lib Dem revival was evident in the elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. This led to complacency on the centre-left, and the idea of a “progressive majority” that was floated back in 1992. It was observed that if you added the Labour and Lib Dem votes (and perhaps the Greens too) there was a clear majority of the popular vote: 55-60%. This was advanced as a reason to embrace proportional representation, which would confine the Tories to a prison. But as politics poisoned after the MPs expenses scandals, and the financial crash, the weakness in this line of argument became plain. Ukip rose as a fourth, emphatically non-progressive force. The Tories revived in the 2010 election, and Labour and the Lib Dems were unable to form a parliamentary majority, though they had 52% of the vote between them. The Lib Dems entered coalition with the Conservatives instead.

The Lib Dem vote promptly collapsed, but the idea of a progressive majority persisted. Labour reckoned they could win on their own simply by picking up disillusioned Lib Dem voters, without trying to convert any Tories. This suited the Labour left, and its increasingly vocal socialist element, which had been marginalised in Labour’s government years, and which was energised by opposition to the coalition’s austerity policies. But, alas, this simply drove more Lib Dem supporters into the arms of the Conservatives, who formed an outright majority in 2015 (with a combined Labour and Lib Dem vote of just 38%), mainly by picking up Lib Dem seats. By now the “progressive majority” was shown to be a clear fiction: adding Ukip and Conservative vote share took you to more than 50%. Proportional representation would not have saved the “progressives”. And that is more or less where things have stuck since. In 2019 Labour and the Lib Dems mustered just 44% between them, down from 47% in 2017. That leaves the left with an uncomfortable truth: they will not win majority support unless they win over substantial numbers of Conservative voters: that they “win the argument”, in other words. And they haven’t done that since the great financial crisis of 2007/08, unless you count that narrow majority of votes in 2010.

Much has been written about this, but most of the thinking has been done by people on the right of politics. Their analysis focuses on values, and the way many voters crave a sense of belonging, undermined by a rootless liberal elite, or left-wingers impassioned by foreign causes. This is fine as far as it goes, but thinkers on the left have a long tradition (starting with Marx and Engels) of looking at economic interests, which they assume lie behind people’s values. This has often been taken too far, but right now there is not enough of it. The narrative of the left is that it is on the side of the “many”, often quantified as 95% or even 99% of the population, against an economy “rigged” by “the few”. This clearly isn’t working.

There are two things to observe about the strength of the right. First is that it is based on older people, as it wins over increasing numbers of the baby-boomer generation. The second, heavily overlapping, point is that they appeal to people who own property, or who have an inheritable interest in property. They are especially making progress in “left-behind” areas where property values are sinking, creating a sense of grievance.

For the most part Conservatives have been very sensitive to the needs of these groups. I remember seeing an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that austerity policies after 2010 largely bypassed older voters, whose lot improved overall. Old age pensions were improved and tax allowances raised. Interestingly these policies were driven forward enthusiastically by the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Lib Dems, for whom the “triple lock” on state pensions was a cornerstone policy. A Lib Dem minister, Steve Webb, skilfully piloted pension reform that postponed pensions for many with minimal political damage. It is no accident that the left’s biggest moment of opportunity since 2010, the 2017 election which saw a surge in Labour support, came when the Conservatives dropped the ball on looking after older voters, with their proposals on social care. There was no chance of them repeating that mistake.

Property ownership, meanwhile, is becoming the critical economic dividing line in British society. Ownership is steadily sinking as housing becomes less affordable, but it still remains high, at over 60%. This does not fit the narrative of “the many” versus “the few”. By and large, property owners and older voters are not so exercised about austerity policies, and are less concerned about changing working practices, such as zero hours contracts. They are distrustful of the radicalism that the left trumpets so loudly. This may not be wholly rational. If austerity has caused economic growth to sag, then this affects the property market. But the left is more comfortable stoking up a sense of outrage amongst people who rent their homes, or have a dependency on the types of benefits that have been cut, than they are in making more nuanced claims for the benefit of Britain’s top three quintiles of income.

Won’t time shift these factors in the left’s favour? The older voters are dying, while more younger ones enter the electorate. We often heard that argument in the context of the Brexit referendum. But people’s political perspective changes as they age, and the left seems to be losing its grip on voters in the middle of the age range. The proportion of older voters is likely to go up, demographers tell us. Things are more promising from that perspective on property ownership, which has been falling steadily. But the change is slow and the Conservatives are acutely sensitive to this, doing what they can to make sure new homes are built, and that people can get themselves onto the property ladder.

So what should the left do? It can hardly ditch its core support among younger voters and those renting homes in order to win over Conservatives and Brexit Party supporters. Some of the policies needed to address the needs poorer and more disadvantaged voters will hurt property owners (e.g. more social housing undermining property prices) and older people (e.g. higher taxes on investments). In my previous post on Labour I suggested three things; radicalism (less of it), pluralism (more) and competence (also more).

The one party that has made some headway in attracting former Conservative voters is the Lib Dems. It has done this by being only marginally on the left (many Lib Dems, myself included, hesitate to call ourselves of the left at all). But it still signs up to many signature left wing priorities: better public services and stronger action on the environment in particular. The party is still vilified by many on the far left, who call them “Yellow Tories”. In the last election Labour sent its activists into seats like Carshalton, Wimbledon and Finchley because they preferred the Conservatives to win these than let the Lib Dems gain traction. But unless the Lib Dems are allowed to gather up Conservative votes, even as they gather Labour ones too, the left as a whole will not succeed.

There is another way forward, as suggested by the coalition of 2010. That is for parts of the left to team up with Conservatives in order to make headway on critical priorities. This has happened in Germany with its grand coalition, and now a Green-Christian Democrat alliance being mooted. The Greens and the conservatives have formed a coalition in Austria. The Lib Dems experience in the 2010 coalition was unhappy, in that its support collapsed, though it can point to achievements. The German SPD’s experience is hardly better. The Lib Dems will not be tempted to go down that route again. But if Labour continues on the road mapped out by Mr Corbyn, that may be the only option for the left to have a serious influence on government.

Radicalism, pluralism and competence: 3 things Labour needs to rethink

The left loves its abstract nouns. So, as Labour ponders what it needs to do to come back from its disastrous showing in last month’s general election, I have three more abstract nouns for its members to contemplate: radicalism, pluralism and competence.

Abstract nouns may be how many political activists like me think about things, but they can be dangerous. They are not good for communicating ideas to the public at large, and they are often used to paper over tricky choices. It is important when thinking through these ideas that we move onto more concrete territory about what actually needs to be done. We don’t want to just invent some more abstract phrases which over-promise and under-deliver: “progressive patriotism” anybody?

So let’s start with radicalism. Leftist politicians talk far too much about it as if it was self-evidently a good thing. We are interested in politics because we want to change things; we have a low opinion of most current public institutions; we see unfairness and injustice everywhere. So it seems natural to advocate radical change. But radicalism has a dark side: it means change and change means insecurity. It also invites scepticism. Many people are fed up with politicians promising to change everything, and then either not delivering, or delivering things that make things worse. And these attitudes prevail amongst the voters that Labour lost to the Conservatives (or so I believe). Telling them that you are going to shake everything up with transformative change for a fairer society cuts little ice. Labour politicians need to tone it down, and present a more reassuring face to the public.

A lot of this is purely about presentation. Brexit is a radical policy after all, but retains a strong appeal amongst conservative voters. That is because it is being presented as a step backwards, to undo the unwanted radicalism that has been inflicted over the last generation. It was a critical step in the Leave campaign in 2016 to include the word “back” in their slogan “Take back control”. A lot of Labour’s radical policies can be re-presented in this way. Nationalisation of the railways, and perhaps other utilities, can be seen as going back to a time before these services were messed up. Whether people will be convinced that a return to secondary picketing and collective wage bargaining as a positive is open to question, but they are certainly steps backwards. The abolition of student fees is easier, even though the scale of the fiscal cost is much greater than in the gold old days. Indeed it is a valid line of criticism of Labour’s policy platform that it owes more to nostalgia than genuinely radical thinking.

But a bit of slick re-presentation will fool nobody. Labour needs to reverse some of its radical promises as well as its rhetoric. This is a competency issue too (I’m coming to that). Some signature policies, like free broadband, are obvious choices. But to convince the public that they really have changed, Labour needs to roll back something that will create a bit of a stink within its own ranks: if it ain’t hurting, it ain’t working. Dropping free student tuition would do that job, but would probably hurt too much. A substantial roll-back of nationalisation plans might be better though it would have less impact. Funnily enough the first election manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, in 2017, was much better than its 2019 one on this front, though incomplete (no attention was paid as to how its abolition of tuition fees would work in practice, for example).

Pluralism means accepting that a variety of political viewpoints should be tolerated and allowed to be expressed within the political process. Most Labour people say that the party should be a “broad church” accommodating a wide range of views. Fewer accept that other political parties have any useful role to play on the left or “progressive” side of politics. (I put “progressive” in quotation marks in deference to the English language: many “progressives” are not progressive at all; not all progressives are “progressive”). And many seem to think that Conservatives and others on the political right have no moral legitimacy, and that people only support them because they have some evil purpose in mind, or have been duped by some or other conspiracy of misinformation. While pluralism within the party, within “progressive” politics and within politics at large might seem to be three separate issues, it is critical to understand that they are linked. If you think Tories are evil, and that Labour’s essential purpose is to oppose them, then it is a short step to thinking that other non-Tory parties are a distraction or worse. And it is a short step from this to viewing politics as a battle between good and evil, in which you should be on your guard against evil influences in your own party, and vigorously oppose them.

At best Labour has an image problem. Where the Conservatives successfully promoted their slogan of “Get Brexit Done”, the nearest Labour came to an equivalent signature phrase was “Why don’t you f**k off and join the Tories”, applied by their activists to anybody who dared oppose their views from other parties such as the Lib Dems (“Yellow Tories”) and within their own party. Far too many people followed that advice. The most visible sign of trouble is the party’s problems with antisemitism. A party that conducted its internal discussions in a more civilised way would not have allowed the sort of abuse that some Jewish members faced to get anything like as far, or to see some of the abusers get off so lightly. This intolerance is damaging the party’s image with the public, and it gives other parties, especially the Lib Dems, a reason for existing.

The funny thing is that Mr Corbyn is the model of politeness in person, and a keen advocate of a “kinder, gentler” politics in general. This shows how difficult it will be for Labour to change its culture. One way in which a new leader might show how things have changed is to work with rival “progressive” parties more readily. I think this needs to go as far as entering into limited electoral pacts. Others suggest that the way forward is to promote electoral reform and proportional representation. As a good liberal I should support this, but I am not sure that this is actually in Labour’s interests. It would be an attack on traditional British ways that might well upset the conservative voters it needs to attract. And anyway I am not sure Labour should give up on the idea of being a broad, pluralistic and democratic movement along the lines of the US Democrats. There is a paradox here: in order to show that there is no need for rival parties on the left it needs to embrace those parties rather than reject them. An electoral pact of some sort would be a powerful signal of that; and pushing such an idea through with a controversial conference motion would show that the new leader means business, rather than mouthing sweet nothings about a “pluralist Labour family”, as leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey has put it.

Which brings me to competence: even Ms Long-Bailey admits that Labour has a credibility problem. The problem is not just to embody competence, but to project it to the public at large. To do this the party needs to overcome some archetypes that many in the public have of liberals and leftists. One is the woolly liberal, who spends too much time listening to nonsense and avoiding hard choices. Another is the permanent whinger, who will never be satisfied, and never take responsibility. People come across these archetypes in their daily lives, and know that they make terrible leaders, even if they often like them or agree with them. Mr Corbyn seemed to alternate between both of these archetypes. He couldn’t make up his mind about Brexit. He protested about everything. And Labour’s election manifesto embodied the problem. The policies may have been individually popular but they were collectively incredible. Life is about choices, and Labour were promising everything now, with a team with little experience of government.

These three abstract nouns work together. A competent Labour shadow government is one where people are chosen on ability, not on loyalty to the leader or ideological soundness. A competent manifesto is one that balances its radicalism with leaving some ideas for later.

Labour’s next big decision is to elect its new leader. How do the candidates shape up on this agenda? It’s hard to tell because candidates tend to say what it takes to get elected, and so it is hard to know what they would actually do. It is also not clear who those candidates will be as the number will get thinned down by the obstacle course of the nomination process. I will comment when the field has been whittled down.

Labour: tactical errors and a strategic weakness

The disappointment for Labour supporters of last month’s British general election result must be crushing. Back in 2017, after the party’s surprisingly strong performance at the June election, I remember a Labour-supporting union official talking as if the party was going to bring down the minority Tory government and install itself in power in a matter of months. Many Labour supporters had convinced themselves that the evils of the Tory government were evident to all, and that it would be a simple matter to build on their 2017 result and win. Instead they took a long step backwards, more than reversing the advances made in 2017, with their worst electoral result since 1935. It hard to imagine that they can win the next election, itself likely to be four years or more away. So instead of liberation being just around the corner, it now looks as if it could be nearly a decade away.

Understandably there is quite a bit of denial going on amongst Labour politicians. This was evident from its leader Jeremy Corbyn’s graceless speech on election night itself. He blamed Brexit and the media, suggested that Labour’s manifesto had been popular, and (this may have been in a later speech) that Labour had “won the argument”. Only later did he seem to allow the possibility that he and his leadership team might have made mistakes.

Funnily enough, though Mr Corbyn’s claims were widely ridiculed, they were not without some substance. Brexit was indeed the battering ram used by the Tories to break into former Labour strongholds. Mr Corbyn had tried and failed to bridge the divide within Labour on the issue; the party did well enough amongst Remain voters (actually rather better than that, given the party’s other disadvantages), but at the cost of alienating Leave supporters. The printed media was predictably hostile to Labour, and this had the effect of setting the agenda for broadcast media. Many of Labour’s manifesto policies were popular, and its radicalism provoked remarkably little comment. Labour could indeed be said to have “won the argument” on subjects other than Brexit, because the Conservatives did not make much effort to engage with them, so relentless was their focus on “Get Brexit Done”. Tories did not make much attempt to defend their party’s record on austerity, for example, and even made vague promises to reverse it.

And yet most Labour members will realise that these explanations for Labour’s defeat are inadequate. Brexit was not an issue that came out of the blue to take the Labour leadership by surprise. Labour’s predicament arose from the party leadership’s allergy to hard choices. The party needed to back Theresa May’s deal with the EU (or at least let it through by abstention) so that the country could have left irrevocably last March, and the Tories saddled with an unpopular leader trying to handled a muddled aftermath. Or, much more riskily, it could have come out hard and early for a further referendum and pushed it through with the help of Tory rebels. And as for the media hostility, this was another known factor, that the party overcame quite successfully in 2017; print media are much less influential than they used to be. In fact the party’s, and leader’s, unpopularity was significantly reversed in the campaign – but they were never going to overcome problems in their core messaging. Labour rightly claimed its manifesto to be the most radical of any major party in recent history (perhaps since the Labour manifesto of 1945). And so it should worry Labour supporters that this fact evinced very little enthusiasm outside its activist supporters, even if outright hostility was less than predicted. The fact that the Tories left so many of Labour’s claims uncontested was not because Labour had “won the argument” but because the were intent on having another argument, about Brexit, and the public showed little enthusiasm to talk about anything else.

The hard question for Labour, and to pick up on the theme of my posts on the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, is trying to understand how much their problems arose from bad tactical choices and how much from strategic weakness. There were plenty of bad tactical choices. The Brexit predicament had elements of both: the party was in a very difficult strategic position, with so much of its critical core support in the Leave camp, but so many of their activists ardent Remainers. In fact I think the Labour leadership made the correct strategic choice: to allow Brexit to happen but blame the Tories for it, but it failed through weak tactical management. When it came to the election, the party seemed to opt for a sort of micro-targeting strategy: making separate promises to lots of different interest groups. Students were to get free tuition and loan write-odds, WASPI women to get generous compensation, environmentalists got radical-sounding policies on climate change, and there were all manner of goodies for public sector workers, and so on. But the overall result was a loss of focus on core messages; besides a lot of the promises were aimed at people that Labour did not need to convert (younger voters and public sector workers) and not to the people they really needed to win over. The WASPI women promise was an exception (these are older women whose entitlement to state pensions was put back), but the way in which the policy was presented left people disbelieving it – coming after (and outside of) a manifesto brimming with an impossible sounding list of promises.

But the tactical mistakes mask a huge strategic problem for Labour that has been evident since they lost power in 2010. They have almost nothing of interest to say say to a vast swathe of middle class and working class voters in suburban and rural England and in towns outside the big cities in England and Wales. Labour’s central narrative since 2010 has been anger at “austerity” – the cutbacks to public services and benefits implemented Tory and Tory-led governments. This anger has largely bypassed these voters, who instead tend to think public money is wasted, especially on people they suppose to be undeserving. These voters are largely employed by the private sector or retired, so appeals to secure and improve public sector jobs don’t move them, while they have largely escaped the effects of austerity in their own lives (public pensions have generally become more generous). Labour strategy has been to ignore these voters, hoping that working class voters would stick by the party through traditional loathing of the Tories, while they improved turnout from younger voters, public sector workers and ethnic minorities. They doubtless hoped that demographic changes were working in their favour. But successful as they were in drawing in younger voters, and metropolitan public sector workers, their efforts positively alienated older working class and middle class voters. A lot of their alienation was focused on Mr Corbyn himself, but sure their dislike of him reflected a deeper distrust of the movement he headed.

It is precisely this strategic challenge that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown successfully met in the 1990s, leading to 13 years in power for the party. Their strategy was to ape Tory policies in order to get themselves elected, and then to increasingly give them a social democratic slant once in power. Alas the problem has become much harder. The liberal economics on which the Blair/Brown project was based have run their course; the booms arising from globalisation and European integration are over, and there is no other ready source of economic growth to replace them. Policies that appeal to the voters have lost and those they need to win over, will alienate the party’s core support (Brexit was an acute form of this dilemma). Also Labour have lost Scotland, which the Blair/Brown regime had sown up (Brown was himself very much a Scot, though Blair was despised there, despite his Scottish heritage).

And yet Labour has huge strategic strengths. The electoral system allows it to fend off challenges from rival left of centre parties; it retains strong support among younger voters, with a more socially liberal disposition and locked out of property ownership; it has a huge body of hard-working activists, especially in metropolitan areas. It has avoided the implosion of so many European social-democratic parties. These strengths mean that it is certainly feasible that the party could regain power in an astonishing reversal at the next election, even if it is hard to imagine.

But doing so means making hard choices. More on that in a future post.

The morning after

Now that Britain’s general election is over I can resume my blog. I was too close to the heart of what could have been an important Lib Dem campaign to risk saying something that could be misused out of context, as well as not having the time. That isn’t a decision I regret, but I’m relieved that I can now be allowed to stand back from things a bit. So here are my first thoughts on the campaign and its result.

The Conservatives now have their biggest election victory since 1987. This gives them a clear mandate to complete Brexit as soon as they can, but there is plenty of trouble ahead. The party’s success derives from two things. First it took the battle to Labour’s heartlands in the Midlands, North England and Wales and won seats there in unthinkable numbers. These areas voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, and Labour’s support for a further referendum was the Tory battering ram. But I suspect they exploited a deeper disenchantment with Labour than Brexit, and demographic changes as old industries such as mining and manufacturing fade into memory. Second the Conservatives convinced most of their former supporters who voted Remain to stay with the party, in spite of its robust stance on Brexit and much else. Here they exploited a weariness with Brexit, and fear both of Labour and a hung parliament. Both of these successes were neatly encompassed by party’s slogan of “Get Brexit Done”.

Labour suffered its worst result since before the Second World War in seats won (1983 was worse for share of the vote). They had no answer to the Tory assault. The party mounted an effective ground operation, at least in London. Here they swept up a lot of Remain voters who had preferred the Lib Dems, skilfully exploiting the various tactical voting websites, and downplaying doubts about the party’s leader and manifesto (and doubtless helping to shore up the Tory vote as well). This ground game turned what might have been a catastrophe into a mere disaster. The far left are blaming the whole disaster on Brexit and on a vicious media campaign against its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But the party’s problems go much deeper. It went to the country with radical manifesto and a narrative that the country was yearning for fundamental change. This was enough to fire up an army of activists, and to secure its support in many traditional working class areas, such as the ethnically diverse council estates in London, which remained solidly behind the party. But it left most people at best unimpressed. Many Labour policies were popular, such as nationalising the railways, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. It sounded too much like presents for everybody and somebody else pays. For me the party’s policies and leadership deserved to be much more unpopular than they were. Labour succeeded in crushing rival opposition parties outside Scotland, so its radicals doubtless think they will have more luck when the Conservatives get bogged down, as they inevitably will, without having to rethink their policy platform and narrative. But the real problem is that the party insists on trying to win by persuading a minority of people to support it, while rejecting everybody else as beyond the pale. They have no idea how to take the fight to the enemy heartlands in the way that Boris Johnson’s Tories have, and the party used under Tony Blair. Labour’s tribalism is leading it up a blind alley.

For the Lib Dems the result is just as disastrous, and poses equally tough questions. They started the campaign with high hopes of winning more than 40 seats, but steadily lost support as the campaign progressed, so that they ended up with just eleven, and the humiliation of Jo Swinson, the leader, losing her Scottish seat. In understanding this it is hard to disentangle the judgemental mistakes from the hindsight. Jo did not go down well with sceptical voters, and was repeatedly put on the defensive in radio and television interviews. But surely some of this is a reflection of the party’s broader weakness: their opponents and the media will always find something to put the party leader down with. In 2017 it was gay rights; this year if it hadn’t been the party’s Revoke policy on Brexit, it would have been “austerity” in the coalition years, or as emerged later in the campaign, transgender rights. Nobody was going to let the party explain its ideas on child poverty, for example, where the independent Resolution Foundation found its manifesto better than Labour’s. Still, I think the Revoke policy was an unforced error; it put a large number of people off, and was an easy way of soaking up valuable airtime.

But the Lib Dem problem goes much deeper. There is a paradox: the more the other parties go to extremes, the more the appeal of the party rises, and yet the harder it is to turn this into electoral success, as the fear factor takes over. People simply ask: “Whose side are you on?”. The party tried to say neither, and that their objective was to lead the next government, and not prop one of the other parties up. But that sounded impossibly hubristic, and the party had to drop it. And that simply fed the Labour tactical vote onslaught, and the Tory appeal to stop a hung parliament. The party increased its share of the vote, and the number of second places it holds. This could be a platform to take over from one of the the other parties in the distant future, but it is hard to see how the party can avoid the long, hard squeeze in the next election, which could now be five years away.

I have almost nothing to say on the election’s other winners, the Scottish Nationalist Party, as I am simply too far away from that country to say anything useful for now. However with Labour down to a single seat in Scotland again, it shows how that party’s London bias is leading to a weak message north of the border. I am disappointed that the Lib Dems did not do better, given its Scottish leader, though it least it picked up a seat to compensate for losing Jo’s, and the party fared better than the other UK-wide ones. Apparently the fact that Jo spent much of her time away from her seat in UK business didn’t help.

I will have much more to say on the lessons and impact of the election, after I have had more time to absorb what has happened and reflect. On the one hand I am disgusted that such an unprincipled leader as Boris Johnson has won so big, and I am disappointed that so many very able Lib Dem candidates lost out. On the other hand I am relieved that we aren’t relying on Mr Corbyn to navigate the country through a hung parliament. Unlike many of my Lib Dem friends, this election to me was about a lot more than Brexit, and I am glad that Mr Corbyn and his hard-left clique have done so badly. I will explain why in future posts.

And into the general election

MPs here in Britain have just agreed a General Election on 12 December. I will be much more closely involved in this election than normal, as I am agent for the Liberal Democrats in Battersea, a seat that has become highly winnable for the party. Since I do not use this blog to spout party propaganda, it will be very hard for me to post much of interest on this blog in the meantime. So there will be a period of silence.

Is an election the right thing? The government does not have a majority and it is hard to see it getting significant legislation through. This is one way of trying to resolve that, though it may not. Each party has approached the election decision with their short term advantage primarily in mind (and all four main parties played a role). There are two main reasons not to, apart from the inconvenience of the time of year. On the government side many reckoned it was feasible to push through Brexit legislation, now that many Labour MPs are softening, and this would turn an election into a victory parade. On the opposition side there was a chance that this legislation might be changed to allow a further Brexit referendum, which many feel would be desirable before an election. Depending on which of these arguments you accept or reject, the election makes Brexit more or less likely to go through. I have no opinion on this.

All three main parties in England (Scottish politics is very different, and I am much less informed; Wales follows broadly similar trends to England) plan to put Brexit at the centre of their campaigns, alongside other arguments, depending on who they are talking to. The Conservatives will say “Get Brexit Done” to Brexit supporters and “Stop Corbyn” to others. Labour will say “Labour is the only Remain option” to Remain supporters, as our local Labour MP is telling us here in Battersea, and “reject Austerity” to others. The Lib Dems will also lay claim to Remain supporters, with its less equivocal stance, while presenting themselves as the only sensible party left now that Labour and the Conservatives have veered off to idealistic extremes.

How will it play out? Many voters are utterly disgusted with both Labour and Tory leaderships, and will be tempted vote Lib Dem. That is why the party is, astonishingly, in contention in places like Battersea, after generations in the desert. Will they be ground down by a relentless focus on “the two main parties” in the media, as happened at the last election, in 2017? The party starts in a much stronger position, in polling, money and organisational strength than in 2017, or 2015, come to that, so it should do better. But it seeks a radical lift-off in its performance. That is harder. There is evidence that Labour have been making some headway with their pro-Remain message since the party conferences, eating into Lib Dem support. That will come at a cost, though, as anti-Brexit parties eat into Labour support, for which there is also evidence.

The critical factor will be how the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his team goes down with the public. His supporters point to a spectacular performance in 2017 once he hit the campaign trail. But that was in a very different situation. There are problems with Labour’s stance on Brexit if you start to press it, especially around their idea of renegotiating the exit deal, and then recommending its rejection in a referendum. But since the Lib Dems adopted their revoke without referendum policy (albeit only if they are in majority), Labour can present their policy as more moderate and democratic. I actually find Labour spokesmen a bit clearer on the details of their Brexit policy than Lib Dem ones.

But the main question about Labour is over the rest of their policy. Their manifesto is sure to be radical, though how many of the party’s preferred policies (like taking over private schools) make it there is uncertain. Personally I think current Labour policy is horrific, full of the worst ideas from the left. Their plans to nationalise railways and other industries, and roll back public sector outsourcing look like a sop to unions that will get bogged down very quickly. The idea of a “National Education Service” is doubtless meant to evince the warm glow that the National Health Service supposedly does, but in me it evokes the worst aspects of the NHS, politicisation, leaden management and useless user interfaces, for example, and not the good bits. And on top of that Labour’s leadership looks inexperienced on not up to executing such a radical platform successfully. If there were no Lib Dem option it I would sooner support the Conservatives, notwithstanding Brexit. But I am a creature of my class and age (I remember the 1970s); others could react very differently.

And what of the Conservatives’ non-Brexit stance? This mainly seems to be based on scaring people about Labour policies, but they are also trying to reassure people that they will provide more funding for popular public services, such as the police, the NHS and education. Clearly things have moved on from the period of uber-austerity from 2015 to 2018, but it is hard to trust them. That may not matter too much as the much of the public distrusts liberal public spending, unless it benefits them personally, which it mostly doesn’t. Arguments about Keynesian economic stimulus benefiting all tend not to cut ice, rightly or wrongly.

How will The Brexit Party do? TBP was rampant in the European elections in May, and present a tempting proposition to angry Brexiteers, of whom there are many. The usual view is that they will spit the anti-Brexit vote and impede the Conservatives. But the new Tory leadership under Boris Johnson, has done much to contain that threat. The fact that Mr Johnson has not kept his promise to implement Brexit on 31 October “do or die” may not help TBP as much as many thought. I expect few people believed him in the first place, and there are ready scapegoats. TBP might prove just as much a problem for Labour, and their very public leaning towards opposing Brexit.

And the Greens? They may benefit from an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru, but it is hard to see them having a major impact. Labour has pretty much shot their fox. Environmental issues certainly have more traction than they used to, but politicians from all parties have noticed. Labour in particular are trying hard to scoop up the angry young environmentalists.

It is all very hard to predict. If Labour start to do well, Tory scare tactics will gain traction and the Lib Dems will suffer. If Labour get stuck, the reverse could happen. Most people think that the SNP will do well in Scotland at the expense of both Conservatives and Labour, though the Lib Dems could make some limited progress there. It will be interesting to see how well the Democratic Unionist Party will do in Northern Ireland, after their very prominent role in this parliament. The betting markets show a Conservative victory and a hung parliament as nearly equally probable at about 45%, with the former having an edge. I don’t disagree.

Is the Lib Dem investment in coalition government paying off?

Signed up as a Lib Dem supporter and donated. I cast my vote at age 18 for Ted Heath and every general since I have been a Conservative, often canvassing. I am done

Thus an email I saw this morning. Also this morning Justine Greening, long-time Conservative MP for my neighbouring constituency of Putney, resigned the Conservative whip. I have been predicting for a long time that Britain’s political system is breaking up. It has happened much more slowly than I had expected. But it is happening.

The change is being brought about by two groups of iconoclasts, fed up with the established ways of British politics. Right now it is those that have taken over the Conservative Party that are making the running. They are led by Boris Johnson, Britain’s un-mandated prime minister, but many spy an evil genius behind him: Dominic Cummings. Mr Cummings came to public attention as special adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove in the coalition government of 2010. He fast developed a reputation as a nasty piece of work, despising most other members of the human race. The signature policy of these years was turning English state schools into independently-run academies. The initial idea for these schools being run by local parents and community groups in a bubbling up of local initiative was swiftly crushed, to be replaced by politically well-connected academy chains, whose most distinctive policy was high levels of executive pay. The policy ended up by achieving little more than the looting of public funds. Mr Cummings then moved on to run the official Leave campaign in the EU referendum, where his particular genius shone through. While it is commonplace to blame the referendum result on a lacklustre Remain campaign, it is not so easy to see exactly what it could have done against the trap that Mr Cummings set for it.

We now have a complete change of culture in the Conservatives. There are some parallels with the previous regime of Theresa May before she was laid low by the 2017 General election, with Nicholas Timothy taking the evil genius role of Mr Cummings. But Mrs May’s regime was introverted and comfortable in the civil-service dominated world of Whitehall, even though it despised parliamentary accountability. It was not radical at heart. The new government is much more a movement of a like-minded elite, and it wants to turn the complacent British government upside down. And it is approaching the political challenges like a wargame where the taking of risks is celebrated. They are happy to play fast and loose with Britain’s constitutional conventions; but more importantly they want to turn their party into something more single-minded and ideological, from the pragmatic broad church it used to be. Liberals are not welcome. Mass sacking of Conservative MPs are in prospect.

The other group of iconoclasts have taken over the Labour Party, with the accession to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. There are striking similarities with the new Tory regime. One of the more bizarre features of the current debate is the way this Labour group have suddenly decided that constitutional propriety and parliamentary sovereignty are sacred principles. They are seeking to hijack the outrage at the government’s latest manoeuvres with the slogan “stop the coup”. We should not take this change of heart any more seriously than the silly slogan.

Both groups’ main asset is each other. The Conservatives hope to bring back reluctant liberals and pragmatists with a fear of letting in Jeremy Corbyn. Some polls suggest that their fear of Mr Corbyn trumps even their loathing of Brexit. Labour activists hope for a repeat of the 2017 election, where they succeeded in polarising the debate as being a choice between themselves and the Tories, marginalising the Liberal Democrats, Ukip, and the Greens. They hope to harvest anger at “austerity” and how society is unfairly “rigged”, and combine it with a vague pro-Remain stance which is enough to haul in Remainers on the basis of its contrast with Tory extremism.

Such calculations dominate the threats of a general election on 14th October, before the Brexit Day of 31 October. This election will require the consent of both main parties. But polling suggests that both would start the campaign in a weak position. The Conservatives are polling in the low to mid 30s; Labour in the low to mid 20s. Who is taking the remaining 40% of the vote, and can they be squeezed?

In Scotland, the position of both parties looks hopeless. Mr Johnson’s accession has left Scotland’s Tories in total disarray, and its leader has resigned. The gains the party made there in 2017 look likely to be reversed. Labour too have failed to gain traction. The main beneficiary is the SNP, who look likely to regain their dominance. There may be consolation prizes for the Lib Dems too, who have chosen a Scottish MP, Jo Swinson, as their leader.

In England and Wales the running is mainly being made by Nigel Farage’s The Brexit Party, and by the Lib Dems, with the Greens showing strongly too. Conservatives and Labour have more reason to hope here. The Greens are challenging very few parliamentary seats, and their ground-level campaigning is weak. They usually get squeezed in general elections, and this looks likely again, with the Labour message designed to appeal to their voters. Mr Johnson is hoping that his line on Brexit will have shot TBP’s fox. That party is campaigning all-out for No-Deal, which is popular in quite large sections of the country. It is well-organised, but probably weak at constituency level. Labour’s mild Remain stance, backing a further referendum, may offer it an opportunity to block Labour’s recovery, but Tory Brexiteers are surely likely to rally back to the flag.

Which leaves the Lib Dems. This party’s activists (of whom I am one) like to see themselves as radicals who want to shake up the system. But now they find themselves cast as the party of pragmatism, tolerance, common sense and respect for constitutional convention, though that comes alongside a strong pro-Remain position. The party has a much stronger grassroots campaigning campaigning capability than the Greens or TBP. It comes close to matching that of the ageing Conservatives (though these may be energised by Mr Johnson), but is still way behind Labour’s. The Conservatives, on the other hand, look much better funded.

Can the Lib Dems capture the zeitgeist and hold their own alongside the two “main” parties? It is an opportunity, but not more than that. The years of coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015 nearly killed the party, but it now starts to look like an asset. Its leader has more government experience than Labour’s (and has been a minister for longer than even Mr Johnson, though not at cabinet level), and it shows the party to be pragmatic and politically moderate, even if that’s a description that many activists would shun. Perhaps now they will get the last laugh on the erstwhile coalition colleagues. And if their poll share (now a bit below 20%) holds up, it will be harder for Labour to get traction too.

In fact Labour are unlikely to go for a pre-Brexit election, though Mr Corbyn seems to want one. It complicates their message too much. But who knows where on earth the steady corrosion of British party politcs will take us?

So just what are Labour up to?

Britain is entering a period of high political drama. All the political parties are geared up for a few months where they could have a decisive influence on events. Except, apparently, one. Labour’s policy on Brexit, the issue of the day, appears confused. They have added to to the general confusion after one of its most senior leaders, John McDonnell suggested they might not get in the way of a referendum on Scottish independence. Meanwhile the party appears riven by internal issues, not least the longstanding row over antisemitism. Just what is going on?

To outsiders the obvious answer is that the party is suffering from weak leadership that is unable to make hard choices. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has had a life in politics playing the gadfly, and has very little background in the heavy-lifting stuff. But he is surrounded by clever advisers, who live and breathe political strategy. Something more purposeful is surely going on.

The first thing to understand about Labour is that the hard left, people that I have also referred to as Leninists, took control when Mr Corbyn took the leadership in 2015. These are patient people with long-term goals. They have been dreaming for a generation and more of taking control of the party, and after that the country: they are not going to loosen their grip if they can help it. They have consolidated control over the party machinery, and Mr Corbyn is one of their own. But their hold is not totally secure, especially with so many MPs not in their camp. If Mr Corbyn was to step down as leader, they have no strong candidate to replace him. Their best bet is Mr McDonnell, who is clearly smarter and more strategic than Mr Corbyn, but is another older white male, without Mr Corbyn’s particular charisma. Somebody else could do to him what Mr Corbyn did to the front-runners in 2015. The other candidate often spoken of is Rebecca Long-Bailey. But she gets very little media space and most people (me included) don’t really understand who she is. I suspect that she is another of those popular insiders who get talked up by their colleagues but haven’t quite got what it takes for the big stage. So Mr Corbyn has to hang on in there, even though he seems well past his sell-by date. Meanwhile the internal runctions are simply part of the price the leadership pays for consolidating its hold. They think much of it is pumped up by enemies of the party in unsympathetic media channels; they aren’t entirely wrong there, though that is normal everyday politics.

The second thing to understand is what the leadership’s general political strategy appears to have been over Brexit. The inner group, in accordance with Leninist ways, is closed and secretive, so it is actually quite hard to know for sure what their game is. But they seem to be deeply scared of taking sides, and alienating either working class Brexit-supporting voters in their northern heartlands, or the Brexit-hating younger middle-class activists who do most of the work. They are mostly Brexit supporters themselves, fearing that EU regulations might limit their options in government. They hope that Brexit happens, and allow the political debate to move on, with the process being messy and the Conservatives getting the blame. They can then attack the tarnished Tories in an election, where they can move the agenda on to “for the many, not the few” (a horrid phrase designed to say less than it seems, appropriated by former leader Tony Blair to replace the much more specific old Clause 4 of the party constitution in the 1990s).

This strategy suffered a major blow when Brexit did not happen as expected on 29 March this year, prolonging the inevitable strain. When it came to the European Parliament elections that resulted, the party had nothing of value to say and performed very badly. These elections gave credibility to two alternative parties, who beat them: The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats. The Greens also did well, surely at Labour’s expense. Labour’s voters are getting used to considering alternatives for their vote. This makes things harder.

But the strategy appears to be undead. Brexit looks likely to happen on 31 October. This will probably be chaotic and this could tarnish the Tories, as planned, while taking the wind from the sails of TBP. The Lib Dems will become irrelevant with their main anti-Brexit message pointless, and Green voters can made to realise that their cause is hopeless in the current electoral system. So keep going.

The most important question the party now has to face is what happens if the government loses a vote of no-confidence in September. This will be too late to stop a no-deal Brexit unless an alternative government can be formed with Labour at its core. What would the party do to facilitate this? The most credible strategy would be to form some short-term multi-party “government of national unity” (a misnomer if ever there was one), by ganging up with the SNP, Lib Dems and Tory rebels. This needs a less partisan and more competent prime minister than Mr Corbyn to have its best chance – some elder statesman, not necessarily even Labour. The Labour leadership appear to have ruled this out. They would have two reasons for doing so. Firstly they would be taking sides and alienating their Brexit supporters; the gambit might even stop Brexit from happening. Second it does not help Labour appear as a credible government in waiting if they accept that their leader isn’t up to leading it.

So the idea appears to be to present Labour as an alternative, minority, government, with Mr Corbyn as prime minister, and dare the other parties and Tory rebels to provide enough votes and abstentions to get it started. If it succeeds it would be an excellent platform from which to launch a general election, with the party’s credibility boosted by the trappings of power. The problem, of course, is that the party would have to take ownership of Brexit. That firstly means getting the EU to delay, which should be feasible. The party says that it wants to revive the previous government’s deal with the EU, tweak it to their liking (for example by making the objective of a customs union explicit) and put it to the people in a referendum. This is very fraught. In practice they would be likely to negotiate a delay and launch a general election. The problem with that is they want the election after Brexit, not before.

In fact what I suspect the leadership really wants to do is somehow to allow Brexit to happen with the Conservatives in charge, and then move for the kill. “Somehow” because they must do this while appearing not to facilitate it.

That all looks very fraught, but it is making the best of a difficult hand. The potential reward for the leadership is massive. They could end up in power after an election, with a lot of their troublesome MPs cleared out, and with the political sting largely drawn from Brexit. The chances of this don’t look that high, but for those Leninists who have been willing it all their political lives, it must look like the best shot they will ever get.

To observers who do not equate national with party interest, and especially those who want to put Brexit to another referendum, this is a dismal prospect. The Labour leadership could act decisively to resolve the crisis through such a referendum. That it won’t isn’t because it is weak, it is because it doesn’t want to.

The Conservative and Labour parties are in trouble

After the general election of 2010, and the Liberal Democrats entering a coalition with the Conservatives, I remember the cognitive dissonance that overwhelmed the party. It was the centre of sustained media attention, for the first time in its history, and with all the trappings of being a significant political force, with MPs and cabinet ministers. But its support amongst the public had died. Many insiders talked themselves into thinking that voters would return in time for the next election, using swathes of statistical evidence from past elections. But the party was as good as finished and was nearly wiped out in the 2015 election. Something of the same dissonance is now being experienced by the Conservative and Labour parties. Opinion polls put each of them at only about 20% of the vote, alongside the new Brexit Party (TBP) and the Liberal Democrats returning from the dead. The duopoly which is so much party of both parties’ raison d’être is facing its most serious challenge ever.

This collapse in support of the two parties that have anchored Britain’s political system for getting on for 100 years follows a global trend, especially here in Europe. It has happened in France and Italy, and is in the process of happening in Germany and Spain, not to mention several other countries. But it is a shock to the British political establishment. The duopoly had its best election in 40 years in 2017, when they Ukip followed the Lib Dems into collapse and they collectively took more than 80% of the vote. They even managed a significant recovery in Scotland, where both had been crushed by the SNP. You could almost hear the sigh of relief, not just from those parties’ luminaries, but amongst the tribe of civil servants, think tankers and journalists who yearned for the old familiar ways of the two-party system. Britain seemed more like the United States or Australia than its “Continental” neighbours.

But in America the political parties are democratic, with processes of open primaries to select candidates, allowing new ideas and people to take hold in alignment with wider popular attitudes. Instead of being replaced, the Republicans and Democrats are being transformed away from the traditional conservative and labour based models to being modern reactionary-nationalist and liberal-green parties – like the parties that are doing well in Europe. The Labour Party flirted with a more democratic and open party structure in 2015, which resulted in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. But it has quickly reverted to the closed, cadre-based organisation as the hard left sought to consolidate its hold on the party machinery. The Tories abandoned their brief flirtation with open primaries long before. Party activists, and to a lesser extent paid-up memberships guard their privileges assiduously. That is the European way. The Lib Dems similarly rejected the injection of democracy earlier this year, amid much scoffing by activists.

The immediate problem for both parties is easy enough to see: Brexit. This issue divides parties formed on traditional lines, but unites nationalist and liberal forces on opposite sides, with greens joining the latter. Whether the issue of the UK’s membership of the EU really should divide liberals, greens and nationalists like this is an interesting question. There are some good liberal and green arguments for being outside the EU. But both loathe the reactionary nationalists with their illiberal and anti-environmentalist beliefs, and this doubtless suppresses any reservations; the conversion of the Greens to EU membership is much more recent than many realise.

For the Tories the problem has been that they have quite reasonably sought a version of Brexit that achieves its main objectives with the minimum of disruption. But this has ignited the anger of the rising tide of nationalists in their ranks, who see this as a sell-out, and have thwarted its attempts to get legislation through. TBP then arose from the ashes of Ukip as a much more disciplined and coherent organisation, having learnt much from Donald Trump’s techniques, and a major threat from the nationalist right. This has tapped the zeitgeist of the party’s bedrock support better than its own party leaders. The European elections showed that TBP posed an existential threat to the Tories, and so both candidates for the party’s leadership are trying to take their party into TBP’s ground, especially with support for a no-deal Brexit. That angers their liberal supporters who are deserting the party for the Lib Dems. By dealing with one threat they are opening up another. This is likely to get worse if the party either delivers a no-deal Brexit, or, indeed, if it fails to deliver Brexit at all.

Conservatives clearly hope to win their liberal supporters back by frightening them with the prospect of Labour coming to power. The problem with that is that Labour support also is in free fall and the party no long poses such a credible threat. A key ingredient of the success of the duopoly is stoking up fear of the other party. But as Times columnist David Aaronovich recently wrote of prospective Tory leader Boris Johnson:

If anything “vote Boris to stop Corbyn” has less resonance than, say, “vote Lib Dem to stop both of them”.

David Aaronovich, The Times 3 July 2019

Labour have reached their sorry state because the leadership is understandably worried by the popularity of Brexit amongst their traditional white working class supporters, especially in many northern towns. They do not see Brexit as the defining issue of the times, but rather they say it is “austerity”, or the struggle of the less well-off against a system rigged against them. They hope to paint a messy Brexit as Tory incompetence and rally a backlash drawing in both supporters and opponents of Brexit. For a long time this looked like a clever strategy, but now it looks like a fatal weakness. As Britain approaches an autumn of political crisis, the party is without a coherent political message on the most important issue of the day. If the party had followed through on its democratic revolution of 2015, it would be leading the struggle to fight Brexit, and suffocating the Lib Dems and Greens in a journey towards being a modern liberal-green movement. To follow through on their strategy they needed the government to get its Brexit deal through parliament so that they could try to change the subject – but when it came to it they were too scared of a backlash from their anti-Brexit supporters.

Doubtless activists in both parties, like Lib Dems during the coalition, think that the ship will right itself by the time the next election comes. Labour supporters remember the surge in their party’s support in 2017. Tories think that Boris Johnson will puncture Nigel Farage’s TBP and generate a surge of support with his charismatic personality. A poll back in June suggested that just this might happen, albeit with a low poll share for the party.

But it is hard to see how events can unfold that will make these wishes come true. If the next election happens before this Autumn’s scheduled Brexit date, the Tories will be undermined by their support for a no-deal Brexit, and Labour will be undermined by their ambiguity on reversing Brexit. If the election happens afterwards, either after a no-deal or a failed Brexit, both parties risk being swept aside in the public backlash. And if a Brexit deal of some sort manages to be concluded, the process is likely to fatally fracture both parties – as a large number of Labour MPs will be required to get it over the line. The situation is becoming so unstable, however, that it is not impossible for one of the parties to still triumph – but this would require a quality of leadership that neither Boris Johnson (certain to be the Tory leader) nor Jeremy Corbyn possess. Strange times indeed.