Corbyn On A Roll
The Tories recent annual conference didn’t go well for Theresa May. She received sympathetic support for battling through her speech with an irritating cough and the embarrassment of receiving a P45 from stunt comedian Simon Brodkin. But it appears that the Tory faithful are abandoning her in favour of the right-wing, social conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg. He has said he would not be a candidate in any leadership election. But he may be pressured into standing by his fellow MPs, as an alternative to Boris Johnson who many backbenchers see as a loose cannon.
It is likely however that the Tories will stick with Theresa May at least until the Brexit negotiations have been completed. But it is abundantly clear that the Tories have lost their way. They no longer know what the party stands for and are therefore unsure of the direction it should take. This is manifested not only in the divisions within the cabinet over Brexit, but also the expressed alarm right across the party over the increasing popularity of Corbyn’s Labour party.
Fear of a Corbyn Labour government was ubiquitous at the Tories conference. With Philip Hammond and other senior Tories warning that Corbyn would take the country back to the 1970s, a favourite theme of the Tory supporting Daily Mail. The 1980s Thatcher government did more damage to the economy and to working class communities than Labour, burdened with cripplingly high oil prices, did in the 1970s. But not a bad word was spoken about the Blessed Margaret. Many Tories want to complete the work that she started, and Blair continued, when Britain finally leaves the European Union.
Amendments to the EU Withdrawal bill, supported by members across the House of Commons, have been introduced. If they are carried they would give MPs a binding vote on the final deal. But it would require an act of parliament to formally enact Brexit. However, serious negotiations have yet to start and further delay could damage the prospects of a final deal. A No deal would force Britain onto World Trade Organisation rules, with, potentially, high tariffs on goods and services. This would satisfy the Europhobe Tories, who accuse opponents of talking the country down, but it could have dire consequences for the economy.
Labour is playing a smart game, by simply being spectators for the most part. While the Tories tear themselves apart over Brexit, Labour is getting on with being an opposition. They attack the government on its economic record and its apparent indifference to the negative effect of its policies on poor and vulnerable families and individuals. May’s slogan ‘A government that works for everyone’ is widely seen as empty rhetoric. Attacking Corbyn and frightening voters with the prospect of a Labour government no longer works.
One senses that May knows this, which is why she is stealing Labour’s policies. some of which, not so long ago, she and her senior colleagues described as ‘Marxist’. The cap on energy prices, the scrapping of the charge for calls on the Universal Credit helpline, the freezing of tuition fees and raising the salary point at which loans begin to be repaid, are all examples. Labour has been urging the government to take these steps for months. The government have announced the changes in policy, knowing that they are losing the support among the over 55s voters and need to win over the lost under 25s. Labour have the government on the run.
Labour’s policies resonate strongly with voters. Opinion polls show that they support public ownership of energy, rail and water; want the pay of chief executives to be curbed; are willing to pay more tax to support the NHS; and call for tighter market regulation. And they are not impressed when Theresa May boasts record numbers of people in work when they know that the UK workforce is the lowest paid in Europe. Voters see that Corbyn is right: free-market, neo-liberal capitalism has had its day.
There is a positive change in confidence and tone in Labour. Corbyn is beginning to look and sound like a Prime Minister in waiting. Even Tory grandee Michael (Lord) Heseltine has said that he can see him in Downing Street. This is not a prospect he would welcome, but nevertheless a ringing acknowledgement of the great strides Corbyn has made since the general election in May. Further endorsement of Labour, albeit for the last Labour government under Gordon Brown, came from former Chancellor George Osborne. He now accepts that Brown and his Chancellor Alistair Darling called the right shots over the 2008 financial crisis. Heseltine and Osborne are no longer on the Tory ship, but they give every sign that if they were, in its present state they would desert it quicker than the proverbial rats.
And there was further support for Labour from a surprising source. The Tory conference warned that Labour’s tax plans would lead to a 1970s-style brain drain. (There is no evidence that this happened but the Tories love their scare stories). However, in a recent report the International Monetary Fund said that the rich (globally) could pay more tax to help reduce inequality without hindering economic growth. It would be a matter for individual governments to decide the level of tax, but nevertheless the principle of higher taxes on the rich has been endorsed by an authoritative international body, whose wisdom is usually appealed to by the Tories.
It was the sight of Chancellor Denis Healy running to the IMF, cap in hand, for a loan in 1976 that set Labour on the slippery road to defeat in 1979. So Labour today shouldn’t allow IMF support to go to its head. It needs to have a clear head and keep the momentum going. Letting the Tories stew in their own Brexit juices. But at the same time it is taking steps to foil a hard Brexit, by placing an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that will give Parliament a say on the final terms. In the meantime Labour is focusing on the bread and butter issues that voters most care about. It is now a united party, with close to 600,000 members. It performed extraordinary well in the general election last May. But winning the next general election will be a monumental task. It will require Labour staying united and convincing voters it has a creditable programme to re-build Britain as a fairer, more equal society.