16th June 2017
-By Steven Duckworth-
Where do we go from here?
A week after the people spoke, politics appears to be in an unholy mess, or so we are led to believe. While the nature of the general election campaigns and the level of political debate were unremittingly awful, the end result need not be. A hung parliament with a minority Conservative government will not please activists of either main party, but it could be a platform for a period of sensible and pragmatic government. For this to happen, all parties will need to play a part while keeping one eye on how they best prepare for the next election. What will not be in doubt it that two issues: Brexit and ‘austerity’ will loom large.
One indisputable point to be taken from the 2017 general election is that the Conservatives ran a terrible campaign. Once Theresa May had been locked into the ‘strong and stable’ mode of campaigning, she was completely unable to change tack and style as the election developed. Once her plans for adult social care had been dubbed – slightly unfairly – as a ‘dementia tax’, she started losing ground and the decision to signal a future parliamentary vote on fox hunting is still inexplicable.
But beyond style and (some) substance it became clear that some voters wanted to punish the Conservatives over the decision to leave the European Union and for seven years of unrelenting deficit reduction. Previous electorates had taken David Cameron and George Osborne at their word; that the UK needed a short, sharp fiscal corrective, but this time they signalled enough was enough. Also the Conservative-supporting press felt that a few lurid – though essentially accurate – headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s past would damage the Labour leader. They didn’t; either because people had already factored it into their view of Corbyn, or they simply saw the reports as desperate smears.
There is one thing that will buoy the Conservatives and it is that they are now, or should be, fully aware of what faces them and the reasons for failing to win a majority. In response to the dangers facing them the Chancellor Philip Hammond could signal a significant easing-off on deficit reduction and pave the way for both a public sector pay rise and funding for early years and secondary education. Theresa May could also state that she intends to soften her Brexit stance by staying in the European Customs Union. Both would be anathema to the right of her party, but it may pay dividends in the run-up to the next election.
It’s possible that such decisions may add life to the barely breathing frame of UKIP, though the Conservative managers may conclude that could hurt Labour just as much as their own party. As it is, Theresa May will probably survive a fair way into a five year term and then be replaced by a warmer and more engaging leader. Write off the Tories at your peril.
Labour has a different if equally interesting set of issues to deal with. Jeremy Corbyn had a fantastic election campaign that surprised a lot of people, perhaps himself included. His warmth and engagement with people was the perfect counter to his opponent’s cold aloofness. However, the Labour leader has a decision to make: whether to embrace a more conciliatory relationship with his parliamentary party or to stick with the base support that has served him well. Corbyn should probably stick with left wing populism for the first phase of opposition until the fallout from the election is fully understood and the options become apparent. Corbyn is a product of the left, but he is not as doctrinal as, for instance, his shadow chancellor. Over a period of time he will need to decide which wing of the party can better serve Labour’s electoral chances. Two issues could also threaten Labour in the next parliamentary term. While the party managed to ‘look both ways’ over Brexit and get away with it, repeating the trick again may prove more problematic.
Labour’s other major problem is its more general policy platform which is left wing (mainly in the style of Nordic social democracy) but not especially progressive. Offering free degrees to the children of middle income earners while you are not helping the poorest by using the tax and benefits system might have passed voters by this time. But as with Brexit, Labour may not be so fortunate a second time. One certain thing is that Labour has momentum (if you’ll excuse the pun) and should allow themselves a celebration at their loss, but not for an extended period of time.
Both the party and its leader – neither of who have the benefit of being underdogs any more – will come under serious scrutiny. In such circumstances over-confidence could be very damaging.
One leader who didn’t see out the election fallout intact has been the Liberal Democrats’ Tim Farron. Never intended as the leader to fight an election, rather a transitional repair man, he fell on his sword over issues of faith, ostensibly. Practically his position was untenable. Poor leadership sat at the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ campaign; an increasingly two horse race meant that Farron quickly got sidelined. But his inability to even try and punch above his weight became obvious.
In contrast with Labour the party did have a broadly progressive policy agenda that sought to increase public spending and use fiscal levers to improve the position of some of the poorest in society. Unfortunately for them this may well have been viewed as too technocratic in the current climate of populism.
Brexit was also an issue that the Liberal Democrats tried to grapple with and would have got more support had the leader been able to project himself more successfully. Under a new leader (whoever she may be) the party could be able to sell their vision of a leaving the EU with minimal damage to the country’s economy and reputation. Indeed the Liberal Democrats could make a public offer to support the government on limited terms – no more coalitions – in order for securing a softer Brexit and a vote on any final deal. Such a deal would almost certainly be rejected by the government and anger Labour loyalists with memories of the ‘Con Dems’, but could well get the Liberal Democrats some wider recognition and respect from an electorate that has largely ignored the party.
So the upcoming parliament will be both intriguing and fraught. None of the main parties at the election really talked about the challenges that face the country going into the 2020s: such as how technological innovation will impact on the economy and society, how to reform benefits, the changing nature of work, the knowledge and skills agenda, the reform of (not just spending more on) public services and how our public institutions often get in the way of people rather than supporting them.
In fact both main parties appeared to have decided that it was time for one last hurrah for their previous greatest hits. If they try that again, the public may well decide that they are starting to rather like the idea of hung parliaments.
By Steven Duckworth