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This dismal election

The announcement of the 2017 general election drew the comment, “not another f**king one!”  This time around, the rage appears to have dissipated into a generalised apathy among anyone who is not a party activist.  Polling expert Sir John Curtice has referred to it as an “unpopularity contest,” describing Boris Johnson as: “the most unpopular new prime minister in polling history.”

As for opposition leader Jeremy Cobyn:

“By the end of the [2017] election, he almost has as many people thinking he was doing a good job as doing a bad job, and people approving or disapproving. But it’s all gone. He’s starting back from where he was, and that doesn’t make it any easier for the Labour Party to win votes.”

This does not bode well for a country mired in economic decline and fundamentally divided by the 2016 Brexit result. As Guardian journalist John Harris reports:

“’Apathy’ would be the wrong word, because there’s no lack of political engagement. On the road over the past three weeks, I have met people who will be voting Labour and hoping that doing so might help to fix the dire state of our public services, and a homelessness crisis that seems to get worse by the week. Former Tory voters have told me they are so incensed by Brexit that they have resolved to support the Liberal Democrats; lots of people have bought into the idea that we must ‘get Brexit done’, and therefore decided to back the Conservatives. But just about everyone has expressed their opinions with an ingrained scepticism.”

To a political class that has failed to understand the enormity of the crisis it is in, this new scepticism should – but won’t – ring alarm bells.  Like Brexit itself, political failure is rooted in an inability to escape Britain’s imperial past.  The political class – politicians, journalists and academics – cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that Britain’s apparent prosperity between the late 1980s and the early 2000s was built on borrowed money underwritten by the once and for good North Sea oil fields.  Britain in 2019 is no less a failing oil state than Venezuela; they are just a few years ahead in their collapse.

Brexit was a symptom of the collapse; and it isn’t going away.  The Tory claim that a vote for them will get Brexit done is a deliberate lie.  It will ensure that Britain leaves the European Union in January 2020; but it also paves the way for a decade of bitter and acrimonious trade negotiations in which Britain’s former EU partners and US ally gnaw the bones of an enfeebled post-Brexit UK economy.

If elections were truly about “the economy stupid,” Labour would be well ahead in the polls.  In 2019, per capita GDP is still lower than it was when the Tories came to power in 2010.  The same goes for the real average wage.  Productivity – the prerequisite for pay increases – has been missing for a decade.  On high streets across the country, thousands of shops and restaurants lie empty and boarded up; while Britain’s growing homeless army shivers in the doorways.  Foodbanks that were almost unheard of in 2010 are now ubiquitous as millions of children are forced to depend upon them for sustenance.  On the other side of the balance sheet, a host of corporate welfare recipients have turned poverty into a multi-billion pound industry in which supposed solutions to poverty somehow always end up making the private service providers rich while poor communities go from bad to worse.  Outside the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle and the archipelago of top-tier university campuses, the majority of Britain has become an economic basket case.

The reason why the Labour opposition has failed to make political gains in these apparently favourable conditions is that the Labour Party is largely responsible for them.  It was Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s 1997-2010 governments that lined the pockets of the corporate welfare queens – bringing the financial sector into the delivery of public services; providing vast handouts to private training companies and universities to train people – who had to borrow for the privilege – for jobs that did not and never could exist.  It was Blair’s government that tore up Britain’s post-war welfare state; inviting US insurance busters like Unem and Atos to deprive unemployed people of benefits and to declare even the most severely disabled people fit for work.

As with the leopard, nobody seriously believes that Labour has changed its spots.  The accidental arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 appeared to open the way to change; and undoubtedly prevented a Tory majority government in 2017.  But Corbyn’s apparent authenticity as a political outsider was always going to be time-limited.  By 2019, a haircut, a new suit and the adoption of a pro-remain stance on Brexit has further distanced Labour from its leave-voting former heartlands.

Corbyn’s dilemma was always going to be hard to resolve.  As I explained in January last year:

“Put simply, in order to form a government in the UK parliament, Labour must win back its traditional working class support in those constituencies that delivered the biggest margins in favour of leaving the EU.  However, the activists that Labour needs to get out on the doorsteps to win these constituencies tend to be fervently pro-EU.  To come out in support of either position is to lose the supporters of the other, and thus to cede power to the Tories; who will inevitably deliver the worst Brexit settlement of all.  Labour’s only hope is to fudge their Brexit policy until the next election is won.”

By November 2019 a high degree of complacency not dissimilar to that displayed in June 2016, had returned to the Labour ranks.  As with all pro-remain groups, the majority of Labour MPs and Labour activists had engaged after 2016 in a debate inside their heads about the benefits of remaining in the European Union.  And having convinced themselves that they had won this debate – despite the polls changing little since 23 June 2016 – they assured themselves that they no longer needed to worry about the “left behind” communities in their supposed ex-industrial heartlands.

Only late in the day did it begin to dawn on Labour campaign managers that those left behind communities are precisely the battle ground where this general election will be won or lost.  Worse still, the few mainstream journalists who bother to venture beyond the M25 are reporting what some of us have been warning about for the past three years – that there is little sign of buyer’s remorse over Brexit; and that Labour’s failure to build bridges with communities that they have let down over decades is about to translate into a Tory majority government. As the Guardian’s John Harris reported on Monday:

“Go to such cities as Manchester and Plymouth, and you instantly get a sense that Labour has renewed its identity, and reaped the rewards. In too many other places, by contrast, there is often a sense of historically complacent party establishments, and failures frozen into the architecture: the Soviet-esque office block nudging the Victorian terrace, the grim multi-storey car park.

“Everywhere I go, there is no end of social innovation happening, usually in the form of grassroots initiatives that prove that some communitarian, compassionate ideals run as deep in the old Labour heartlands as they ever did. But politics too often seems irrelevant…

“If what we are facing is a deepening estrangement between progressive politics and the people and places it once spoke to as a matter of instinct, even more difficult arguments rear their heads. If you see a certain kind of old, white, working-class man and think that progressive politics ought to have nothing to do with him, you should maybe understand that your opinion is an indication of huge political failure.”

Harris’s fears are amplified by anecdotal evidence from traditional working class areas where Labour ought to have been a shoe-in.  In a local political forum, I came across this comment yesterday:

“My opinion is based on canvassing data not bias. I live in Cardiff West. I’ve been knocking doors in Ely and Caerau and the number of voters who have previously identified as Labour now switching to Tory/Brexit is astonishing.

“This is a disaster of your own [Labour’s] making and I’m deeply disappointed by it…

“My point is if a similar swing like the one I’ve witnessed is seen in other parts of the country, the Labour party’s in a lot of trouble, and I put that down to inaction in opposition.”

Belatedly, the Labour Party has switched its campaign focus away from remain-supporting metropolitan and southern seats where it feared the LibDems might split the vote, to the traditional working class communities that used to form the backbone of Labour governments.  But doing what should have been done over the last three years in the final week of a campaign is unlikely to bear fruit.  As I warned in the wake of the 2017 election:

“For all of the euphoria around Mr Corbyn’s campaign, Labour still lost the election.  Mrs May is still Prime Minister and, with the help of the DUP, the Tories can maintain a majority in Parliament – the numbers simply do not work for any Labour-led ‘rainbow coalition’…

“What matters now is whether Labour can cement a new coalition of political forces in the country.  This will involve developing a platform that can offer hope not just to Britain’s youth, but also to the downtrodden voters in Labour’s neglected ex-industrial heartlands.  That, in turn, means escaping the neoliberal consensus that says that rising incomes are always bad; that low taxes are always good; that public borrowing and investment are always to be avoided; and that public ownership is always wrong…”

Labour failed to reach out to those communities and it has failed to build a new coalition of forces around a politics and economics based around the reality of Britain’s economic decline.  Its “green new deal” industrial policy lacks credibility in an economy that – beyond London – has been in freefall since the 1980s.  People fully understand that the old semi-skilled high-paying jobs in industries like steel, coal, shipbuilding, railways and car manufacture are never coming back.  They are also fully aware that the wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars that Labour is promising will inevitably be manufactured in Asia where the labour is cheaper and environmental regulation is almost non-existent.  Moreover – and in this instance correctly – Labour’s spending plans (which can only work in a net exporting economy) lack credibility (despite being more convincing than Tory pledges that seem to be plucked out of the ether).

There was a debate to be had in the years after the Brexit result about how Britain had become so divided a country; about the deep economic malaise that has crushed the life out of so many communities; and about realistic means of managing Britain’s inevitable post-oil decline.  Instead, too many Labour politicians spent three years repeating the failed campaign slogans of 2016 and telling millions of working class leave-voters that they were wrong… some even continuing to label them racists and morons.  As Harris puts it:

“I am a passionate remainer. Instinctively, the prospect of binning the Brexit result lifts my spirits; since 2016, one of the most frustrating aspects of British politics has been Labour’s refusal to talk meaningfully about our exit from the EU and the Tory fantasies that have propelled it. But at the same time, much more difficult thoughts are inescapable.

“Once a culture of industry, trade unionism and reflex Labour-voting had started to wane, people in post-industrial England felt increasingly cut off from politics. Whatever its inbuilt mendacities, the referendum was presented as a clear, era-defining choice; and whatever their motivations, people voted in good faith. Which brings me to my own tortured ambivalence, and a conclusion that has been rattling around my head since I got back from the red wall trip: unless millions of voters’ exasperation with what has happened since 2016 is convincingly answered, and some kind of Brexit takes place, the chances of any firm reconnection between progressive politics and its supposed ancient heartlands look slim.

“That, undeniably, is one of the key reasons why a party led by an Eton-educated chancer is forecast to perform strongly in seemingly unlikely places – and why, even if Labour holds on in these seats, it has no end of work to do. If your response to that is a mixture of horror and bafflement, do not blame the voters. Think about your own side, from the Corbyn-supporting left to the liberal remain hardcore, and absences and estrangements out in the country that still seem a long way from receiving any kind of convincing answers.”

With eight days to go, the Tory party is still 10 points ahead in the polls.  Labour has closed the gap, and the trend is still in Labour’s favour.  But anything more than a 5 percent Tory lead will be enough to give Johnson the majority he craves.  Moreover, at this point, the best Labour can hope for is a Tory minority government which, while thwarted on Brexit, may well be propped up on its domestic agenda by a Liberal Democrat Party that has positioned itself on the centre right ground vacated by the Tories.

There are still a series of “what ifs” that might make a difference.  Polls are weighted in favour of older voters because they are considered more likely to vote.  If, however, Britain’s younger voters turn out next Thursday, they might just swing the result.  Tactical voting – which was apparent in 2017 – might also deprive Johnson of the majority he seeks.  And in the end historical ties to Labour in ex-industrial seats that have no good reason to reward the Tories might still prevent a Labour rout.

Nevertheless, the political disconnection and the economic decay that has given rise to it has not gone away.  The political class may attempt to return to the Westminster Bubble next Friday, but the public discontent is continuing to grow.  And as Britain takes another turn closer to the economic cliff edge, the sound of guillotines and firing squads being assembled on Parliament Green are getting louder…

As you made it to the end…

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