Each party has come to see the other as not merely its opposition, but its enemy. That has implications for the way our politics will work in the years aheadby Tom Clark / November 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
If the only choice this winter is between Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn, quite a slice of the country will be in no mood to make it. Other parties are, of course, available. And yet despite the interminable shambles of Conservative expulsions and Labour defections, the logic of Britain’s electoral system is such that the bookmakers rate the only realistic outcomes as being the Tory incumbent’s return to No 10, or some sort of administration led by his radical socialist rival.
There is a vast and self-evident difference between the pair in some areas: on foreign policy, Johnson is set on hugging Donald Trump close whereas Corbyn has always wanted Britain to keep its distance from the US; on Brexit, where Johnson is determined to see through a pretty hard departure from Europe, Corbyn now promises a fresh referendum instead; and on taxation, where (as I show) Johnson plans further giveaways for companies while Corbyn plots a serious raid on their riches.
Less appreciated are certain things the pair have in common. Today’s Labour Party is—as Jack Shenker elucidates in his inside analysis of the Corbyn movement and its ideas—not merely attempting to boot out one Tory government. It is instead very consciously challenging certain basic assumptions about economics and public policy that have reigned unchallenged since Margaret Thatcher was in No 10.
While Johnson has no truck with the Corbynite challenge to wealth and property rights, he too is beating a retreat from “hands-off” economics. Turning the spending taps back on is in part electioneering, of course, but Johnson also trumpets big infrastructure schemes and a proactive industrial policy, and is virtually silent on the whole Thatcher/Blair/Cameron agenda of applying commercial logic to the public services. In these pages this summer, Tim Montgomerie sketched out a detailed new Tory agenda that championed small businesses over large, and community ties over market forces. Immediately afterwards, he was appointed as the prime minister’s policy brain.
Some will suspect that the moment Johnson has the election out of the way, he will revert to type, and double-down on red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism. Perhaps. He certainly seems an unlikely figure to lead his party away from Thatcherism. But then again, in 1945 few would have expected that Winston Churchill would be reconciled to Labour’s welfare state just a few years later. In 1979, nobody would have envisaged the young firebrand, Neil Kinnock, ever persuading his party to swallow parts of the Thatcher agenda. But that is what the end of a historical era will do. After a whole decade shaped by the misadventures of high finance, and with business as usual fast turning climate change from theory to fact, this feels like the end of an era to me.
One other trait shared by Corbyn and Johnson is a certain populist style: each rallies his base by defining it against an “elite.” For today’s Labour Party that elite is simply the rich, whereas the Tories are coming to use the word in a vaguer, cultural sense which the American Right has long favoured, to refer to educated metropolitan types who (supposedly) disdain tradition, patriotism and authority.
So the parties have different villains in their sights, and the clash of interests is real too. But the shared style still has implications for our politics. Each party has come to see the other as not merely its opposition, but its enemy. That has implications for the way our politics will work in the years ahead. Quite a few politicians, including Justine Greening, have given up hope on reforming society through parliament, and are redeploying their efforts elsewhere. Another very serious vulnerability is, potentially, our shared faith in the validity of the midwinter election results, as Steve Bloomfield warns. The fundamentals of a constitution—which Supreme Court president Lady Hale says is still what makes her proud to be British—are more contested than they have been in generations.
The December poll is likely to be ugly as well as important. It will not only shape the direction of policy, but also test the way we do politics. The saga of Brexit has already exposed all sorts of inadequacies in the way we are run. The case for reform is likely to be starker than ever after the voting is over.