Two events in the last week, of passing political interest, could be very important in shaping British politics in the long term. First, the poll showing that Labour now matches the Conservatives in aggregate public support (both with around 40 per cent). Secondly, the Liberal Democrats – currently struggling with a mere 6 per cent – have chosen a new leader. Unlike his three immediate predecessors, including me, Ed Davey is likely to be around for quite a while to shape the party’s future.
The poll rattled Conservatives, but Keir Starmer will not get too excited. Polls are volatile. Votes do not necessarily translate into parliamentary seats. The next general election is probably four years away. His party’s immediate future is much more affected by next May’s elections to the Scottish parliament, where Labour’s prospects are currently very poor. But this positive opinion poll does show “green shoots” for Labour – a sizeable chunk of the electorate is now disenchanted with government displays of incompetence and is open to persuasion by Starmer, who is coming across well.
Ed Davey has the possible advantage that public expectations of the party are currently very low, much as they were for Paddy Ashdown 30 years ago. Polling is at the lower end of the range of support of 6-8 per cent, which has been the norm since the start of the coalition, 10 years ago.
I spent two frustrating years trying to “cut through” without success until there was a surge of support at local elections (which my team and I had worked hard to support in the doldrum months which preceded it). Success at the European elections followed. We then rose to 20 per cent in the polls, which demonstrated that when the party could tap into its strengths in local campaigning and in engagement with Europe, there were victories to be had.
I don’t need to dwell on the disastrous general election campaign which came next; suffice it to say that Ed Davey’s first task is to restore morale and the belief that success is possible. One of the party’s strengths is resilience, so there is something to work with.
The two centre-left parties are currently at very different levels. But they face essentially the same two problems: how to connect with a public which is confused, frightened and divided; and how to translate support into seats in parliament to effect a change in government.
As to the first, both parties have the same destructive tendency, in different ways: each gets hung up on abstract debates on values and principles. Labour has a long history of sectarian feuding over the relative merits of “social democracy” or “socialism” (now represented respectively by the Blairites and Corbynites). Starmer is smart enough to realise that the public has little interest in “isms”, is impressed by people who seem both practical and optimistic, and doesn’t like extremes. The Lib Dems, by contrast, don’t have ideological feuds but love talking to themselves about “liberal values”, which are either very vague or targeted at microscopically small groups. The tough lesson for both is that Britain’s most successful centre-left leaders – Wilson, Blair and, long ago, Lloyd George – were pragmatic to a fault.
The immediate challenge for serious opposition parties will be to come up with credible and popular answers to some very tricky issues which are unfolding in front of us and for which Johnson’s Tories seem alarmingly unprepared. Beyond the immediate twists and turns in the management of Covid-19, the first big issue will be how to pay for the pandemic. There is no urgency to deal with public debt when interest rates are negligible; but there has to be a plan which is progressive and financially responsible.
The leaked first draft of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s proposals seemed eminently sensible: tax rather than more spending cuts, to be paid for mainly by the relatively prosperous taxpayers. Aligning capital gains and income tax, removing generous tax reliefs on pension pots, and removing perks for well-off pensioners. All this sounds like Lib Dem “alternative budgets” proposed over the years, and certainly too much to swallow for the Tory backwoodsmen. Ed Davey, in particular, with a strong economics background, has an opening to occupy the centre-ground while the right of the Conservative Party squabbles.
Then there is the wider issue of the direction of the British economy once it is cut loose from the EU. As it happens there is an immediate challenge: what to do about Britain’s only major global tech company, ARM, designer and maker of advanced microchips. Opposition leaders should be shouting from the rooftops to save it. Without a clamour, it is likely to be gobbled up by a predatory American company and then spat out in Trump’s new cold war with China. One of the successes of the coalition was seeing off a (Pfizer) takeover for Astra-Zeneca, now key to the work on a Covid-19 vaccine, and the wider revival of industrial strategy. Keeping ARM British is a campaign that could create a popular front page for both left- and right-wing press.
Finally and perhaps most significantly, there is the looming issue of Scottish independence and the break-up of the UK. In the elections next year for the Holyrood parliament, the SNP is faced with a hapless, Corbynite-led, rump representing Labour, thoroughly Brexitised Conservatives, and Lib Dems who have lost their attractive message of support for both the British and European Union.
And all the unionist parties risk a failure to appreciate that Scottish nationalism is rooted in emotion, and will not be vanquished by talk of pounds and pennies alone. One respect in which the Lib Dems can make a major contribution is to refresh its thinking about home rule within a federal UK. This would be welcome north and south of the border since many English people also reject our horribly over-centralised, London-dominated, system of government.
But however effective the opposition parties are in tackling policy, they have to win power and, even for Labour, that seems a remote prospect. Social media buzzes with discussion about the parties collaborating more actively than in the past.
The first step on this road is to bury the finger-wagging, censorious tribalism which has Labour endlessly rehearsing the “crimes” of the coalition and complicity in “austerity” and Lib Dems refighting the Iraq war and denouncing the “betrayal” of Labour Brexiteers. That won’t be easy especially among activists who are motivated by the tribe. But at least, now, the leaders inhabit the same political universe, and some voices in both parties are recognising it.
The most radical option – a merger – is unrealistic given the divisions of the past, and the distinct political identities and traditions of the two parties. The most plausible way forward is some sort of pact which addresses the biases of the British voting system.
I see that Alexei Navalny is basing his new movement in Russia on what he calls “smart voting” to unite against a common foe (Putin in his case). Such obvious common sense has largely passed Britain by; Britain badly needs “smart voting”, at least as a first step to reforming the voting system. An explicit pact, to stand aside candidates, would be difficult. Though the smaller, “progressive” parties – Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru – did have such an agreement in 2019. It made little impact because Labour was outside.
With Labour, any such pact would necessarily be one-sided. Lib Dems are in second place in 80 Conservative seats of which perhaps 30 are realistic targets to add to their 11 MPs next time round. There are three or four Green prospects, though awkwardly they tend to be challenging Labour. The other seats against the Conservatives are those Labour needs to sweep up.
A serious agreement could be done with a lot of self-discipline, but to be credible with the electorate it would need a common “offer”, as well as common candidates. The risk of such an approach is that it looks like a “stitch-up”, which could turn voters off. There should be serious discussion about how to cooperate, but where I suspect we shall finish up is a tacit understanding about priority constituencies, as in 1997, when Blair and Ashdown made a breakthrough for both parties.
The growing numbers who are angry and disillusioned with this government will expect no less than intelligent cooperation between “progressive” opposition parties. Both need to remember that pragmatism is the path to power, while continued self-righteous airing of differing “values” and “principles” will gift the Tories another decade in office.
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