Deluded, Cowardly and Self-Absorbed, Our Political Parties Are Creating Homeless Voters

Rarely have the two annual conferences of Britain’s main political parties provided such a vivid contrast. Labour in Brighton were energised and confident; the following week in Manchester, the Conservative party’s conference was confused and lacklustre.

Party conference season is very much like going to the cinema on a sunny afternoon. The sun is banished by the darkness of the theatre; the drama requires a suspension of disbelief. However, when the film ends the audience returns to reality.

And so it was this year. While applause sustained Theresa May as she gave her already notorious speech, the Tory conference was very much a B-movie affair: applause could not disguise how that this was a tired party whose confidence has vanished.

Labour managed to captivate more easily. Its message was that the party was ready for government. The delegates believed it.

It is only when the return to the normalcy of sunlight allows a wider view that voters can see that neither party is fit for government.  

Brexit is not a side issue. It will dominate British politics for a decade

Although he has only won a magnificent general election defeat, that Jeremy Corbyn would be serenaded as a conquering hero was inevitable.

Despite the euphoria, less than a third of voters see him as a prime minister. His ratings lag behind his party’s and, while Theresa May has lost her commanding lead over the Labour leader, she still has a lead. What should worry both parties - but especially Labour - is that roughly a third of voters chose “Don’t Know” over both of them.

Theresa May is a leader who is on death row; Jeremy Corbyn can remain as leader until he wants to spend more time on his allotment.

Most worrying for Labour supporters should be the leadership’s attitude to Brexit. A union and Momentum fix ensured that Brexit was not debated during the week so that the leadership was not bound by a policy in favour of the Single Market that it did not like. The idea that Labour has a sensible Brexit policy is like Mrs Harris in Martin Chuzzlewit -  a phantom of the mind.

Brexit is not a side issue. It will dominate British politics for a decade - or more. The danger for Britain’s voters is that they will reject one deluded political party for another.

Labour cannot be “ready for government” if on the most important issue of the day, its policy is to avoid having a policy. Labour’s ability to set the agenda cannot cover the reality that the Brexit chaos will be the same.

In contrast to Labour, the Tories love talking about Brexit. However, cheap jingoism - as defined by Boris Johnson’s roaring lions - is not the same as policy. They have created a crisis in British politics and are proving themselves inept at finding remedies.

The Tories need to make up their mind whether to back May or to get rid of her. Their current position is worsening an intolerable situation whereby any serious negotiation with the EU on a divorce bill or a future trading relation is impossible.

Much of what went wrong with May’s speech was beyond her control. Metaphor does not strengthen a rational case for her departure. Its optics might weaken her stature further in European eyes, creating a further paralysis.

Beyond the headlines, her speech was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to relaunch her party’s prospects. Even here, she failed to truly jump the necessary hurdles. Her speech was full of promises of future action and half-baked current policies. That she offered £2bn towards new housing while £10bn towards Help to Buy, fuelling demand without increasing supply, demonstrates the dearth of thinking.

If housing will be a defining issue of the next election, Labour can feel secure. Its confidence might be misplaced: there is a difference between being popular and being right. Rent controls - as announced by Corbyn - are a flawed idea. Even the celebrated left-wing economist, Paul Krugman, has spoken out against controls for reducing the quality and quantity of housing while raising rental prices in a textbook study in supply and demand.

It cannot be denied that Labour has ambition where the Tories do not: Labour offers 100,000 new houses per year, in contrast to the Tories’ paltry 5,000. What they have not done is explain how they will succeed where recent governments have failed.

Our parties seem unable to look outwards

Why are both parties so cowardly when it comes to tackling some of the underlying issues that have made home ownership an aspiration for so few millennials?

Increasing social housing is a must. Organisations, such as Urbed, have looked at models in Denmark and the United States where building and land taxes have been split to regenerate rundown areas and fund decent housing.

Policy must tackle the buy-to-let market and encourage retired couples living in family houses to downsize. Why is no-one talking about right-to-buy from private landlords, a policy that would mirror Thatcher’s signature housing policy in a market dominated by private renters?

Our parties seem unable to look outwards. They are leaving voters behind as they look inwards while European allies look on with a mixture of bafflement and pity.

Britain is increasingly an irrelevance on the major issues, where once it was a key player. We are self-absorded where we used to be internationalists.

Locked in their delusions of relevance, it may be that the bafflement becomes one shared by Britain's voters whom parties are making homeless.

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About the author

Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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