After Labour’s Triumphalism, Theresa May Tries to Battle the Corbyn Tide
It does not matter that his speech was a load of tosh. It also does not matter that Labour chose, as much as possible, to avoid discussing Brexit. Nor does it matter - sadly - that speaker after speaker in Brighton danced with antisemetic bigotry to wild applause. The tide is with Labour.
In his main speech, Jeremy Corbyn claimed Labour as the mainstream party. He has eked out a waferthin lead in opinion polls. As much as his supporters used to complain about media coverage, they cannot now. Once lauded as Britannia reborn, if Theresa May sneezes she is accused of causing a pneumonia epidemic and betraying Brexit to boot. Politics is about luck. For the moment, Labour has it.
That the Prime Minister gave a speech at the Bank of England to extol the benefits of capitalism, shows Corbyn is making headway. The trouble was her speech made a case, it did not have an agenda. As they meet in Manchester, it will be the first opportunity for the Conservatives to illustrate how they intend to correct that.
The task seems formidable. On Friday, the Legatum Institute published a report that suggested that socialism had become more popular; nationalisation of key public services got the kind of popularity that punitive policies such as the benefits cap used to; public spending was no longer seen as an ill. But worst of all, voters associated capitalism - and therefore the Tories - with negative values.
Twelve years after David Cameron launched his strategy to detoxify his party, the Conservatives remain - or have become again - the nasty party. Part of this is inevitable. They have been in government for seven years. Public moods switch between wanting greater fiscal responsibility and more investment in public services. Voters take a Vergilian approach to politics: unum e plurbus - they want a bit of everything.
Already the mills of Conservative policy are grinding: undoubtedly, the government will do something about a tuition fees cap, and high debt repayment in the budget. Having gone to the ballot box in June, young people have more power and the government now realises that it needs a retail offer.
It needs more though.
Labour can talk, May can act
Theresa May needs to show the government is on the side of ordinary voters. Forget Hayek and privatisation, Margaret Thatcher stayed in office for twelve years because she allowed council house renters to become homeowners. A single policy created a new block of Tory voters. They remained loyal for four terms of office.
May has a big advantage. Despite rumours to the contrary, she is the prime minister: Labour can talk, May can act.
She is constrained by parliamentary arithmetic. Since losing her majority she has been timid. She lost authority and she has refused to regrasp it. On Europe she has shown there she is not as intransigent as her rhetoric: Remainers, not Brexiters, approved of her speech in Florence. Her next step must be to refind that moral purpose she spoke about when she became prime minister. Then create a policy agenda.
She may not fight another election as leader but she can hand over to a successor with her party still in the game.
Stranger things have happened in politics in the last two years.
Long term they face horrendous problems: a membership whose average age is 72 and declining to record lows; Brexit will possibly destroy their reputation for sound economic management in a way that might make Black Wednesday look like a teddy bear’s picnic.
Government, unlike opposition, is a hard place from which to refresh ideas. Yet, less than six months after winning their greatest vote share since 1987, it seems a little premature to write off the Conservative party.
Even the Legatum Institute showed that it was the young not the old who were more positive about capitalism. But what is the point of capitalism if you have no capital? On Thatcher’s tenth anniversary as prime minister, polls showed how out of step her beliefs were with British opinion. Her party remained in power for a further eight years.
No one yets knows whether Corbyn’s tide is a tsunami or dribble or just somewhere in between.
Labour should wait for votes to be counted before they declare victory
Even Corbyn insiders failed to predict the extent of his election surge. Everyone got it wrong or they got lucky. However, since the election the predictions have continued to be incorrect. Theresa May has not been forced from office. Hardly harmonious, the Tories have not started a death spiral of recriminations similar to the 1990s. Despite terrible events such as the fire at Grenfell Tower, the Tory vote holds up at roughly 40%.
Manchester’s conference will be a different affair to Labour triumphalism at Brighton. Already declared prime minister by his dimmer supporters, Labour talked about when - not if - it was in power. Emily Thornberry struggled to admit Labour did not win. John MacDonnell - ever ready to share his idiocy with a broader public - let supporters know a secret: “I’m going to be Chancellor!” he crowed.
Labour should wait for votes to be counted before they declare victory. That they did not win is demonstrated by the fact that they won fewer voters, fewer seats than the other party and are not in government. According to YouGov, their leader lags behind Don't Know and even Theresa May as voters' preferred prime minister. Corbyn far exceeded predictions. However, parties get into office by beating their opponents, not expectations.
The Conservatives have one final advantage. They know they have a problem. Labour - judged from Brighton - do not.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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