Yesterday’s horrific Local Election results confirm some long-held assumptions of this publication and others. The British right is reuniting, with UKIP’s support melting away and the Conservatives benefiting as a result.
Meanwhile, the left has been pushed further back, with Labour losing scores of seats and the predicted Liberal resurgence checked. UKIP are finished. Their first and last MP, Douglas Carswell, says so. The Liberals will not be so easily forgiven for selling out what few principles they had in coalition, especially while they are led by a pygmy. Labour will fight on, whatever the result of the General Election.
In truth, however, the circumstances could not be more favourable for the forces of British Conservatism. The vote for Brexit was a rejection of the economic and political settlement that globalisation has imposed upon this and other nations. The great luxury of being a Conservative is that, when faced with an outcry such as Brexit, it is easier to do what Theresa May has done. It is far easier to evoke the patriotism and nostalgia of Old Britannia than it is to offer meaningful solutions to the seminal challenges presented by this new era.
The left’s challenge is fiendishly difficult by comparison. Yet, what yesterday’s results showed – and what we assume the General Election will show – is that this challenge can only be solved from within the Labour Party. The old two-party system is reasserting itself in England and Wales and, while Labour’s position is very bad indeed, it remains the best vehicle for British progressives.
It was the great Denis Healey who warned Shirley Williams that it would be harder to set up a new party than it would be to save the Labour Party. A great result for a new party under our system would be 70 seats. An utterly atrocious result for Labour right now would be fewer than 150 seats. Unless the electoral system changes – which it won’t – liberal centrists who dream of a Blair-Clegg-Osborne triumvirate are on a foolish flight of fancy.
Meanwhile, out on the doorstep in Hampshire on Thursday, I was reassured by how much residual tribal loyalty to Labour remained. In the town of Basingstoke, Labour either held what it had or advanced its vote share – totally out of synch with the national picture. This was not a fluke – Labour in Basingstoke and other places where we did well, like Greater Manchester and Exeter – is not seen as an aloof, elitist machine, but as the party of the community.
On the basis that Labour will remain the only party capable of challenging the Tories for governance after the election – sorry, Tim Farron – we need urgently to unite the British left around several core ideals. It has been said by enough people now that a new politics of open vs. closed is forming, but Labour will not square the circle while it is viewed by working-class communities throughout England as the party of unrestricted immigration and chocolate-infused cappuccinos.
To move beyond this paradigm shift, Labour needs to position itself not simply as the party of open, but as the party of the future. Nebulous as this may sound, the Tories have decided they want to be recapture their natural mantle of being the party of the past. This is their historic calling, and with the British people so uncomfortable with the pace of change at present, it is convenient for the Tories to unironically imitate the Luddites and try to resist the inevitable.
It will take years to develop the alternative argument, and to persuade the British people to come on this journey with us will be far from straightforward, for all the reasons given. We would be failing in our patriotic duty, however, to deny that the challenges of the near future – whether they be robots taking our jobs or the Russians hacking our elections – require anything other than policies focused not on taking this country back to the 1950s, but forward into the 2050s.
You don’t have to study the history of British politics much to find that progressives have only won when they’ve been seen as modernisers. We can heal this country and take it forward, both by being the party of community and the party of a nation of communities. The future can still be bright for Labour and Britain if only we are honest about the challenges we face. Forward, not back, should be our mantra and our cause.