Plan B Politics

As Stephen Bush’s piece last week highlighted, there are a finite number of messages a political party can run on. Typically, these positions don’t change between elections because they are so simple: “things would work better with us in charge”. 2017, however, was a turning point for both parties.

When Jeremy Corbyn rose to victory in Labour’s leadership election in 2015, he did so on the back of a promise of a new type of politics. Many chose him because he offered something the other three candidates seemingly did not, and that was hope. Corbyn famously asserted he would bring a new straight talking, honest politics into the Labour party, something he really hasn’t done. He was meant to be the politician who could finally energise the dwindling youth vote and bring non-voters out into the voting booths for the first time.

Fast forward to June 2017, and Labour had returned from a near 20-point deficit in the polls to force a hung parliament. A dismal campaign from Theresa May gave Corbyn the wind in his sails, and policies such as the abolishment of tuition fees had on the face of it galvanised the youth to an astonishing spike in turnout. However, as we now know, this wasn’t exactly the case.

Recently, the British Electoral Survey found that turnout did not increase among 18- to 24-year-olds at the 2017 election, although it did increase in areas with larger numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds. The noteworthy changes were actually found in the 25-44 age group, where turnout increased significantly and swung in great numbers towards Labour. The groups of voters Corbyn aimed to bring out in force did not turn up, and despite a successful campaign, Labour’s Plan A had failed.

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What is it that Divides Us?

Jo Cox gave her maiden speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday 3rd June 2015. Describing her constituency, globalisation, and immigration, Jo inspirationally said that “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”. After her death just a week before the EU referendum, the hashtag and movement #MoreInCommon went global and ever since has been used as a means of attempting to heal the conflicts and divides in society.

Of course, it’s true in many ways. We are all the same. But there’s no doubt that we should be worried about the growing divisions festering around us all. Traditionally, the big divides were that of political party identification, this has since been replaced by simply: Remain or Leave. It’s understandable why; despite both party leaders playing down the issue, it will define us and our country for generations to come. The referendum formalised a deep cultural divide stemming across many factions. Leavers are pitched against remainers, the young against the old, the affluent against the impoverished, graduates against non-graduates, and towns against cities.

In the past, it was class that was the main predictor of a person’s likely voting behaviour. This has significantly narrowed, with both support for Labour among the middle class and support for the Conservatives among the working class rising by 12 points between 2015 and 2017. The big divide in voting behaviour is now age. At the 2017 general election, the generation gap was the largest since polling records began. Among 18-to-24-year olds Labour led by 35%, but among over 65’s the Tories held a 36-point lead. In the referendum three-quarters of 18-to-24-year-olds voted Remain, but two-thirds of over-65s favoured Brexit.

Education was also a big factor in both votes. In the 2017 election the Tories led by 22% among people with ‘low educational qualifications’, but those with ‘high-level educational qualifications’ plucked for Labour by 17% more. In the referendum, those with GCSE or lower qualifications voted 70:30 to Leave, but those with a degree voted 68:32 in favour of Remain. There’s also another reason for these stark contrasts: the direction and leadership of the two main political parties under current leadership. May’s Conservatives have lurched to the right, and Corbyn’s Labour to the left, and people are being forced to choose a side.

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Don’t Hold Your Breath on Another Snap Election

Many are pondering the simple question, when will the next UK general election take place? Due to the chaotic times at hand, many believe another early election is inevitable, and could well be next year. It’s easy to see why. The Tories have the slimmest of majorities being propped up by the DUP, Theresa May’s leadership is as strong and stable as a wet tissue, and she has enemies within her party waiting to pounce and drive her out of Downing Street.

However, I can tell you now there will not be an election in 2018, the reasons of which are plentiful. The first of which is Brexit. This week we moved onto the second stage of negotiations with the EU, which essentially considers the future relationship after we leave. This is where things get tricky, and it will take up most of the remaining 15 months before we leave. Expect very little time to be wasted on domestic policy until then, and there is no definitely no time to waste on another campaign and visit to the polls, no one in Westminster will want to risk it.

Another issue is no one in Westminster particularly is interested in even entertaining the thought of another election just yet. The Tories, first, do not want to risk the slim majority they currently hold, and their leader does not want to risk the house she lives in. The Tories also do not want to take a risk on their leader whom despite still being slightly more popular than Corbyn, would currently lose an election with Labour’s current slender poll lead.

The Tories will first want to find a successor to May, but not whilst she remains a useful tool. On the 2nd June, May told the 1922 committee “I’ll serve as long as you want me”, and that is quite literal. When the Tories decide it’s time to go, she will go. The party has no other leader ready to step in, and none of the candidates wants to take any of the flak from Brexit. Boris is pushing himself out of the picture, Damian Green might yet have to resign, Davis is beaten from Brexit, Rudd has a very dangerous majority, and Hammond is as out of touch as it comes.

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Towns are Corbyn’s Key to No 10

The UK and its citizens are divided across the spectrum. Leavers are pitched against remainers, the young against the old, the affluent against the impoverished, graduates against non-graduates, but perhaps the biggest divide is between the towns and the cities. For years governments have seen and tried to use cities as engines of economic growth, and hoped that their increased prosperity would fund and carry along surroundings towns.

Towns have been left behind, especially when it comes to politics, and definitely when it comes to the Labour Party. Labour was a party founded on the working class focusing on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, but in recent years has become a party of the middle class, of ‘socialism fans’ as it were. Under Corbyn, working-class support for Labour rapidly fell to its lowest point ever. That’s not to say that town equals working class and city is equivalent to the middle and upper classes, but there is a strong correlation between the two.

Labour is currently stockpiling member support and votes in strongholds and major cities like London and Manchester, and this was as evident as ever in the election. The general election in June saw a 10.2% swing from Conservatives to Labour in cities but was just a 4.1% swing in towns. Labour made twice the gains among younger, middle-class voters in cities than older, working-class voters in towns, and gained the most ground in seats with increased capital. This is not just a recent trend, as the Tories have made a net gain of 13% over Labour in towns since 2005.

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Labour’s Working Class Woe

It’s no understatement when I say that Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017. As highlighted by Rob Ford, ‘Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales’. Labour shocked the country by winning in new places such as Canterbury, and the Tories continued to make big gains across the north of England.

For the first time ever, ABC1s are more likely to vote Labour, and those unemployed are now more likely to vote Conservative. As I’ve highlighted before, the UK currently finds itself more divided than ever before. The country is divided by Brexit, age, education, race, location, liberalism, and most notably, by class. Theresa May and the Tories have certainly been trying to angle themselves towards the ‘proud and patriotic working class’, those who are discontent with current levels of immigration, want beefed up security and defence, and predominantly want the UK to leave the EU. But the question is, has Theresa May won the support of working-class Britain or has the Labour party simply lost them?

Under Corbyn, working-class support for Labour rapidly fell to its lowest point ever, but this trend isn’t a short-term thing. In 1966, 69 percent of manual workers voted Labour; by 1987, only 45 percent did. Under Blair, Labour did increase its share of the working-class vote once more, but this was at a time where Labour picked up huge support from all segments of society. Between 1997 and 2010 support fell away; as highlighted here, for every voter Labour lost from the professional classes it lost three unskilled or unemployed workers. And since then, the trend has spiked.

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This is Not a Game, The Single Market Must Now be Fought For!

The idea that anyone can tell us what a Leave vote represented is folly. The referendum was based upon our continued membership of the European Union, not upon what the terms of a theoretical exit would be. The idea that the 52% voted to take us out the single market, the customs union, and out of entities such as the European Court of Justice is ridiculous. Yet that is the drivel being spouted, not only by the Tories but by senior members of the Labour Party. There is no precedent for our exit from the EU whatsoever.

Because of this, Brexit is an absolute shambles. The government have absolutely no clue what they are doing and contradict each other one day to the next, and so do the opposition. The only party with clarity on these issues are the EU, and they will be licking their lips at the prospect of two years of discussions with David Davis. With a hung parliament, and the government lacking their own majority to enforce such a hard Brexit, the Labour front bench could play a divisive role in the future of our relations with the EU, and whether we stay within the single market. But alas, they are now standing back. As Rob Francis puts it quite simply, Labour and Corbyn should be leading, not following.

Labour’s stance on Brexit is, let’s face it, is anybody’s guess. Last Sunday on Andrew Marr, Jeremy Corbyn said that a Labour government would leave the single market because it is dependent on membership of the EU, which is both wrong, and harmful. Norway is one example of a country who are not in the EU but have full membership within the single market, and Corbyn knows this. By Wednesday, his Chancellor said the opposite, then Dianne Abbott mimicked this before Barry Gardiner said that we should leave both the single market and the customs union!

I do understand the arguments behind Labour not landing on one concrete position regarding Brexit, as the party hopes to capitalise on a changing public mood and Tory mistakes. But there are times when national interest comes first. Leaving the single market would be catastrophic for the UK’s economy, and even if Brexit led to a Labour government, leaving the single market would make it even harder and more treacherous for Labour to meet their manifesto spending pledges. The IFS has forecast that leaving the single market for a free trade agreement could cause a £31bn hit to the public finances, extending austerity even further.

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The Centre Ground is Torn Apart – but Moderates Time Will Come Again

Politics is very fluid, it is ever changing, and it must, as it must ebb and flow along with the public opinion and the Overton window. Traditionally, elections are won in the centre ground, as the party that appeal best to them traditionally gain their majorities. There is a big difference between centrism and the centre ground; both Labour and the Tories have never really been centrist parties, but have both managed to take the centre ground for themselves over the years. There is only one ‘centrist party’ in the UK, and they have only ever been the small party in a coalition.

The spectrum and makeup of UK politics are ever-changing, but arguably over the past 2 years, it has shifted more radically than ever before. The Tories have taken a lurch to the right through Brexit, and since Corbyn’s leadership election victory Labour has moved to the left wing, although their manifesto will have told you another story. The Liberal Democrats have been demolished, and both Labour/Tory moderates find themselves on the fringes of the parties they once commanded. Traditionally, the UK has never strayed too far from the centre ground, but due to the radical paths both main parties are treading, the public is finding itself being pulled in different directions.

Therefore, the UK currently finds itself more divided than ever. The greatest divide right now is between Remainers and Leavers, even within each single party, as the Tories feud on Europe never seems to cease. Through the 2017 election we also now see big divides in age, social class, education levels, towns and cities, globalisation, and liberalism, as one side plucks for May’s Tories, and the other Corbyn’s Labour. Public opinion is shifting at a greater speed than ever before, but it is not simply lurching one way. As the latest BSA findings highlight, on some areas Britain’s opinions are moving to the left, and on others, to the right.

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