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What Next for the Parties?

December 13th, 2019

The Tories

It is quite a victory. 3 years after a humiliating withdrawal from his first attempt at the Tory leadership, Boris has the largest Tory majority since Thatcher, the sort May so wanted and far larger than Cameron ever managed. How sweet must he be feeling today. It also raises the very real possibility of the Tories winning the next GE; a 78-seat deficit is hard for an opposition party to overcome in one bound.

So Boris now has an immense amount of political credit, both with his party, the country and the EU. He will need to use it well and early in this Parliament when all the hard decisions need making. His victory speech seemed to recognise that with its reference to being lent Labour votes and not letting those voters down. Will the Tories really govern as One Nation Tories? What does One Nation even mean in a post-referendum Britain? Will they – when they come to implement the post-Brexit agreements with the EU and others – remember the interests of the places that voted for them? One example: Grimsby has a Tory MP. The Danish PM today said that the question of access to UK fishing waters for fishermen will be an issue in trade talks. The French too. Who gets what they want?

There is more: he has made lots of promises beyond getting Brexit done. How to balance the competing interests of his new Tory coalition of voters, the demands posed by a post-Brexit world, the need to make the economy work, to share its benefits fairly, how he prioritises between all the various manifesto promises and the need to really deliver on them will be key to whether his Tory party will succeed and have a long-term stable future.

When he became leader Boris was pretty brutal in casting out those who opposed him; similarly with Tory MPs voting against him. The desire for revenge – to make it harder to oppose or scrutinise him or his government – will be one which, if he is sensible, he ought to resist. Whether he does so will be another measure of this government’s success.

And what about its moral compass? Easy to dismiss Labour accusations of racism given Corbyn’s difficulties. But he cannot forever rely on pointing the finger at Labour. Anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim prejudice has crept into the Tory party and some of its candidates. Big problems always start out small. Were he wise, Boris would take the strongest possible action now to ensure that racist, hateful, xenophobic behaviour, speech and attitudes are rooted out of his party, however uncomfortable this may be for him and the party. Not only is this electorally sensible but it is also the right thing to do. Rarely in politics is this the case.

Labour

Oh dear! The worst defeat since 1935. A party going backwards in seats. Seats which have never elected a Tory MP electing them with large margins. Labour ones turning into much less safe or marginal seats. A leadership which lashes out enemies preventing its victory rather than realising that it was voters who rejected it, which seems incapable of saying sorry, of owning the defeat, of taking responsibility for it – as it would undoubtedly have done had Labour gained seats or stopped a Tory majority. And now a leadership which thinks that, despite such a heavy defeat, its policies were popular.

The one mistake which Labour ought not to make – but looks as if it will – is to assume that simply removing Corbyn as leader will solve its problems. It was the leadership, yes, but it was also the direction in which the leadership took the party.

Bluntly, it had an impossible programme, that nobody believed, put forward by people who were not credible.  All three aspects need to be addressed. As Aneurin Bevan put it: “The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism.” If everything is important, nothing is. It is no use talking about fairness and presenting policies favouring the well off (WASPI women) at the expense of the young or no tax increases on MPs on £70K but tax increases of 30% or more on the self-employed earning the same amount. If the NHS was so important, why was giving free broadband/nationalising all internet providers the policy the leadership focused on at the start of the campaign?

Now Corbyn says he wants to stay on to allow discussion about who should take over. Is he really doing what Michael Howard did when he allowed younger MPs to put themselves forward, to show what they stood for and were capable of? Or is this really about his strand of the Left seeking to cement its control of the party and the succession? If Corbyn goes quickly, the risk is that Labour will rush to appoint a new leader without doing any hard thinking. If he stays, the Far Left could tighten its grip and Labour’s voice – on Brexit, on FTAs, on the Tories’ policies – will be absent. That is sub-optimal for good government. Or Labour. And who is there to do what Kinnock did? Given the Tories’ majority it could take 2 elections to put Labour back in play. New leadership will need to be thinking about and preparing for the world as it will be 5/10 years hence. By then the GFC, the Iraq War will be 20 years in the past (the miners’s strike – still being used in Labour PPBs for the North – even more so). Labour will need to speak to a generation born long after these events.

One thing it needs to do above all is to realise that it is not enough to call yourself moral. You have to act morally too. Anti-semitism damaged Labour’s image, its credibility, its competence. It hurt because there was truth in what its critics said. If Labour wants to be taken seriously, it needs to stop shooting the messengers and listen to the messages.

The Lib Dems

11 MPs, most of them women, only 2 even vaguely well-known, 1 probably for the wrong reasons, the leader gone. Some good second places in a number of Tory seats. What is the point of the Lib Dems now? Well, the Remain cause is dead (and, in truth, has been for a while). But the nature of Britain’s future relationship with the EU is not. Nor are liberal values: free speech, the rule of law, holding governments to account, proper scrutiny, not demonising non-citizens or the precarious, all of them areas where the Tories, particularly if they become arrogant and hubristic, are vulnerable. The Lib Dems could stand for these, try and ensure that they have a voice, that other parties are kept honest on these issues. It’s a start, anyway.

Scotland and Ireland

The DUP has learnt the hard way the folly of overplaying its hand. We may look back to the year when Nationalist MPs won a majority of seats in NI as the year when reunification with Ireland became inevitable. Now we have the Scottish question: how will the UK’s PM govern a kingdom where Scotland has taken such a very different view from England on the issues of the day?

During the Falklands debate, Enoch Powell told Mrs Thatcher that, having been called ‘the Iron Lady‘, in her response to the Argentine invasion “the nation and the Right Hon. Lady herself will learn of what metal she is made“.  Boris has been called many things, not all of them flattering. There is much suspicion of his character, his principles and whether he is in politics for anything more than personal ambition. He now has the chance to show of what metal he is made, whether he can prove his critics wrong and rise to the occasion that this victory gives him. For the sake of the country, we must hope that he will.

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