Monday, 28 September 2015
The long reign of King George
Let's turn, this week, to the other side of the political equation: let's have a look at the Conservatives' tactical and strategic choices in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn's surprise election as Leader of the Labour Party.
Behind the scenes, they're elated. High-fiving, fist-bumping and laughing in the corridors of Westminster, they cannot - of course - believe their luck. Now, as The Historian has always predicted, there might be something of a Corbyn bounce in the weeks and months ahead. There's scant evidence of it so far, though there is a bit of an uptick in Labour support noticeable in Labour-leaning Wales as recorded in a YouGov poll this morning. It may well be that Mr Corbyn's plain-man-in-the-Islington-coffee-house persona will buoy up Labour's poll ratings over the next few months. That the people will want to buy a political craft ale after years of fizzy-but-samey lager. The Party's sensible refusal to tear itself to pieces at its first Corbyn-led conference, notably over Syria and Trident, is a baby step in this direction. And there is abundant evidence of lots of voters pricking up their ears and taking a bit of notice of Mr Corbyn as new, intriguing, fresh and above all a bit different. He will probably do a little bit better than many of his detractors believe right now.
But really. Conservatives noted all this at their recent political Cabinet. They pondered for a bit and tried to look serious. They made a few respectful noises. Then they all burst out laughing. They now think that they get to play this Parliament's game of 'UK Elect' on the easy settings, kicking back with a few beers, leaving Central Office empty, saving on their heating bills and just pushing out an email every few days from the comfort of their armchairs. That they don't even have to try. They're probably right, as Labour's 'new' but incoherent and fantastical economic policy is just one great big easy open goal that Conservatives can just keep kicking the ball into until their legs are tired.
But this does face the Conservative Party with some serious dilemmas. The first problem they'll have to face is how not to kick seven bells out of each other over the European Union referendum, now they believe they're likely to be in power for the next decade at least. The second, though, is much more significant, and goes to the heart of the dilemma facing all modern Conservatives: what is the party for? Should it be all Tory consolidation, comforting noises and anti-Socialism, with a bit of patriotism and a dash of welfarism blended in? That's the 'Harold Macmillan' option. Or should it go hell-for-leather right now, while there's basically no official Opposition, and try to reshape state and society in their entirety? We can call this the 'Thatcher' button on our imaginary 'UK Elect' game.
Well, they're almost certainly going to go for option one. They still don't have much of a majority, remember, as displayed by notable recent retreats on fox hunting and the European Convention on Human Rights. Wholesale reforms of - for instance - the NHS and the BBC will have to wait until 2020-25. But the tack to the centre will first and foremost be because the Conservatives' top leaders these days are basically political nihilists, as we've argued many times. What matters is winning, over and over and over again. And they'll do anything to secure that end. In fact, let's amend that: what matters is winning for an entire generation. Smashing the Labour Party to bits, driving over it repeatedly to make sure, then chucking it in an incinerator and burying the rest of it in a shallow grave.
They're succeeding at the moment, by the way. The Trade Union Bill's changes to political funding, whereby trade union members will have to 'opt in' to political funding rather than choosing to 'opt out', just like changes to charity's rights to speak out in the last Parliament, are designed to chill and still opposition in its entirety. To bankrupt Labour as a serious national party. Given their likely loss of councillors and MPs over the next five years, the state funding and support that is also the lifeblood of any party that seriously seeks to form a government is going to bleed away as well.
And what will be the best way to disembowel Labour? To go for the centre (rhetorically, at least): to aim at precisely the sweet spot where all those Britons who are leaning Conservative live and think. Now we've already seen this process in action, because Chancellor George Osborne made sure he claimed to be bringing in a Living Wage during this last Budget. Now, yes, we know that he wasn't, and that Tax Credits cuts will actually leave most of the working poor worse off. We've pointed this out before. But it's a waste of breath now that Labour have vacated the ground where they can even hope to fight back.
Now he'll pull this trick again and again. He'll talk about devolution all the time, even though the reality is somewhat less impressive than the rhetoric. He'll squeeze as much as he can out of new childcare and leave arrangements (and spending) for working parents. He'll try to pull centrist Labour MPs into his big tent with offers of big juicy jobs. He'll indulge in a great big string of tax cuts once he has a surplus in place during 2018-20. Know where they'll be focused? Yes, you guessed it - among the blue collar workers, the so-called C2s of electoral lore, who often opted to stay with Labour in 2010 and 2015. While all the cuts happen to very poor and disadvantaged Britons - or slice into budgets, for instance for research or the police, that few people notice in their day-to-day lives. That way, he can recoup the greatest electoral advantage for the least money spent. Since Osborne is now quite likely to be the next Conservative leader and next Prime Minister (right now he's got a 35% chance of that on the betting markets, as against Boris Johnson's 18%), he's got every incentive to do all this. He'll talk about economic and social security for the middling sort of Britons (who, oh, just happen to be those people who live in marginal seats, and who will actually vote) until you're sick of hearing it. And then he'll say it some more.
How far we have come. In early May, as the spring began, Left-leaning Britons thought they discerned a future of rainbow coalitions, proportional voting, a federal Britain, and an end to austerity. Now, as we leave September, the future appears rather different. And it's this: George Osborne doing just as he likes. For as long as he likes.