Economic uncertainty. A deeply divided public. A shockingly widespread lack of faith in the institutions fundamental to democracy. As the winds of change and discontent sweep across the world, Britain finds itself facing fundamental and unprecedented challenges. But as ominous storm clouds form on the horizon, a pitifully inadequate political class can only respond with catchphrases.
“Without knowledge of wind and current…societies do not keep afloat for long, morally and economically, by bailing out the water”
The British public are suffering from a serious case of political fatigue. This exhaustion is understandable in a period defined by seemingly endless crises, unpredictable and bitterly fought electoral battles and a growing sense of anger at the current state of things.
But there does not seem to be any respite. With the news of Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France, attention now turns back to the domestic scene and the UK’s own forthcoming contest. With critical questions being asked about the future of everything from Brexit to immigration to the economy, surely Britain’s politicians are ready to lay out clear, innovative visions of how to deal with these challenges?
At this crucial moment in deciding the future direction of our nation, we are, every indication suggests, heading in to a one horse race. But The Conservatives current strength masks the reality of a party without a discernible, coherent plan for the future. Buzzwords and endlessly repeated, focus grouped mottos are substituted for actual policies. Yet the forces opposing them appear hopelessly divided and unable to offer a credible alternative.
And so, in a country where the sense of malaise is deep, the anger at “business as usual” profound and a hunger for new solutions is widespread, we find ourselves with no real choice at all.
The illusion of “strong and stable government”
“Political language is designed…to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”
Whatever your political views, there is no arguing with the fact that The Conservative party is an election winning machine. The party’s electoral guru, Lynton Crosby, understands what resonates with voters. He realises the potency of short, simple messages, repeated over and over until they are embedded into the popular consciousness. The effectiveness of this appeal can be seen in almost every major vote of the last few years. “Make America great again.” “Yes we can.” “Take back control.”
For this election, the Tories message is clear, much to the annoyance of political journalists already sick of hearing “strong and stable government.” This is the party’s war cry; to be repeated in front of every camera or microphone the party’s leaders and foot soldiers can get in front of. The Conservatives embody order, reason, and common sense. Theresa May is a leader, a safe pair of hands, a figure of conviction who can lead us through turmoil to success. The opposition meanwhile would be dangerous if they weren’t so useless. The left are dismissed as deranged, incompetent or a mix of both, summed up by the label “coalition of chaos.”
It is a strategy that looks to pay off big time. There appears to be no serious challenger to the Tories. The Labour party is essentially two warring factions trying to tolerate each other long enough to run an election campaign. Polls suggest that Labour’s leadership is distrusted by a huge swathe of the electorate. The Lib Dems remain in the wilderness and look unlikely to make much impact. UKIP appear on the verge of electoral wipe out.
But beyond the marketing, this Tory government hasn’t proved itself particularly strong or stable. May, who has become an icon of decisive leadership, first flirted with Leave, then opted to support Remain during the referendum. She also argued for the economic benefits of intergation with the EU. Her sudden conversion to the cause of hard Brexit seems as much a cynical move to court voters on the right as any deeply held principle. Will her approach to the EU become more conciliatory after a large Conservative majority is safely sat in parliament? No one can say but the evidence suggests her approach is liable to change depending on what is most politically expedient.
“Strong and stable” were also not the first words that came to mind when the Government reversed its decision to raise National Insurance. In fact, according to The Spectator, hardly a bastion of the British left, it suggested “a staggering lack of communication, forethought and basic political competence.”
More worryingly, there is little to suggest that a May government will have the answers to the fundamental issues facing the nation. Stagnating wages. The coming automation of huge numbers of jobs. The effects of cuts on a health system in crisis, a police force struggling to deal with rising violent crime and schools failing to provide a skilled and productive workforce. Most of all, what will it do for the millions of people in the UK who feel left behind by globalisation? Or the majority of the population who have no trust in public institutions?
Into the void
“As in nature politics abhors a vacuum”
The Tories have been able to project this perception of themselves due to an almost complete lack of effective opposition. The 2016 EU Referendum result was seen as a refutation of mainstream politics. It was as much a rejection of the political status quo as it was of the EU itself. It was a message that politics had changed and the parties, if they wanted to survive, would have to adapt. But in the wake of the result, it is, bizarrely, the party in government alone that seems to have reacted and capitalised on this.
The Labour party is in disarray. Much of this has been blamed on Corbyn. It is hard to argue with the criticism that he has not connected with the majority of the electorate. He has seemed at times unable to hold the Conservatives to account in the Commons and unsuccessful in conveying his message to voters outside it.
But Labour’s problems go deeper. It is easy and convenient for the PLP to point to Corbyn as the key to the Party’s downfall. But the exodus of northern voters from the party began under Blair and continued under Miliband. Those who say the answer lies in simply shifting back to the centre do not understand the deep antipathy that many hold for New Labour. Labour needs to show it has a credible yet genuinely alternative plan for the country. Wholesale adoption of Conservative economic ideas while paying vague lip service to a wooly idea of general “fairness” is unlikely to convince anyone. After all, is there anyone who seriously believes that Owen Smith would have a realistic chance of winning this election?
Labour is facing a fundamental identity crisis. It seems stuck between two discredited and dated ideologies; 2000s Blairism, widely regarded with disdain on both the left and right and a 1970s socialism concerned with a society that no longer really exists.
But Corbyn is at least offering a choice, a deviation from the established discourse and polling suggests his message is resonating with younger voters and students. Even amongst the wider electorate, it is his personal competence that is questioned rather than his policies that do seem to have struck some sort of a chord. But unless he can somehow address his personal unpopularity and fluently express an updated and clear message that will win over voters, he looks set for a heavy defeat. There is also the issue, as Bernie Sanders found across the Atlantic, that Corbyn’s most likely supporter bases, the young and the poor, are among the least likely to vote.
The Lib Dems attempt to seize the centre ground meanwhile is not showing any real hope of paying off. The party performed unspectacularly in the local elections and Tim Farron seems to have little more personal appeal than Corbyn. The once ascendant UKIP seems to be desperately flailing around looking for anything to keep itself afloat, from proposing burka bans to a “one in, one out” immigration policy. Without the momentum of anti-Eu feeling, however, and the personal popularity of Nigel Farage, the party looks doomed.
All this amounts, essentially, to a state in which only one party really has a chance of power. In a country where the challenges are mounting and views on how to deal with them so divergent, how can this be the case?
The Cambridge politics professor, David Runciman, in an interview with Slate, stated that the British system has effectively ceased to function. “There is this zombie quality to British politics with these dead parties and dead leaders,” Runciman argued, “There is nothing in the system to kill them.”
“This cohort of politicians have in common the enthusiasm that they fail to inspire in the electors of their respective countries…Convinced that there is little they can do, they do little”
In France we have just seen the victory of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement. The group was only formed last year yet was able to defeat both of France’s two traditionally dominant parties and a surging National Front. In Italy there is the 5 Star Movement, started by comedian Beppe Grillo and now an established presence in Italian politics. The Spanish anti-austerity movement Podemos too has enjoyed big gains in only a few years. Donald Trump, whatever your thoughts of him, was hardly a traditional Republican candidate.
All across Europe and beyond we see new parties, coalitions and movements emerging from the mess caused by the fallout from the 2008 crash. The political landscape is shifting. Voter allegiance is changing. The old barriers and debates of left and right are breaking down and becoming blurred. Yet in Britain it appears strangely frozen in time. There are no new forces. The only exception was probably UKIP, who have now been almost totally eclipsed by the Tories.
The nature of politics in Britain has clearly irrevocably changed. It is hard to see a return to the old battle between two entrenched traditional parties. But in the face of these new challenges, those who lead us appear bewildered and merely trying to weather the storm. The same trends The Conservatives are benefitting from now may well come back to haunt them. Our world is changing and sooner or later, so will our politics. But who will benefit remains to be seen.