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How long will British politics float in suspended animation?

May 31, 2018

A year ago during general election campaign hustings and interviews in Bristol West I predicted with confidence that the shock of Brexit was about to shake up British politics.  One of my frequently deployed phrases was that Brexit was “a meteorite striking the surface of our politics.”  I thought that the almost 50:50 split of the country into two camps would break the mould of politics in the way that many had predicted in 1981.  The fact that the Labour Party really had been captured by the hard left between 2015 and 2017 meant that the conditions were surely right for a major realignment.  I was wrong. But then so were most other predicted outcomes of the 2017 election.

The result left May weakened, Corbyn strengthened, the Liberal Democrats stabilised, the Greens deflated and UKIP almost extinguished. The Tories and Labour had a combined vote of over 80% for the first time since 1979.  The Ugly Sisters had shared the Brexit spoils between them.  The Remain vote had given Labour the benefit of the doubt, with the party clocking up 65% vote shares in most urban intelligensia seats, including the one formerly represented by me. The Tories added lots of votes to Cameron’s 2015 tally but lost seats.  Ironically, May’s Premiership was saved by Unionism, in Scotland where they did manage gains from the SNP and by the Northern Ireland DUP, one of the most right wing parties in western Europe. The Liberal Democrats bet everything on a trenchant pro EU stance.  It worked in south west London, Bath and Oxford but fell flat elsewhere.

In the last year nothing much has changed.   The Brexit negotiations grind on.  The difficulties of achieving a deal that satisfies all sections of the Tory party become ever more apparent.  Yet polling shows very little slippage in support for Leave.  While I don’t set much store in individual opinion polls of party voting intentions, the overall trend is clear.  British politics has settled into support ranges of just over 40% for the Conservatives, just under 40% for Labour, a static 8% for the Lib Dems, with UKIP and the Green Party in the margin of error of negligible support below 3%.  We are now in a holding pattern, the question is – how long will it last?

There is one factor that mystifies me more than any other.  It infuriates me as much as it puzzles me. How does Corbyn still manage to delude millions of progressive voters that he is on their side? How has he remained the utopian Pied Piper at the head of a column of millions of young people?  Corbyn has convinced them that he is the new Red Messiah.  But Brexit is the biggest blow to progressive politics in the post Second World War era. It will reduce work and study opportunities for everyone.  It will hobble economic growth.  A weakened economy means lower tax revenues, starving the NHS and other public services of the extra resources needed for a growing and aging population. There is nothing socialist about Brexit. The only red thing about it is the carpet Corbyn has rolled out for Theresa May’s plans.

Corbyn is May’s brother in arms in Brexit. He is her collaborator, a harsh political word.  It was one that was spat at me with some venom by numerous Labour voters in 2015. The Liberal Democrats have been given a punishment beating and shoved out of the electoral sight of millions of progressive voters for the crime of acquiescing in the increase of tuition fees while in coalition.  Brexit will have a far more adverse and long lasting effect on the future prospects of all young people. But in the weighing scales of progressive opinion Brexit is not yet tipping the balance.

It seems that Corbyn can do no wrong. Neither his long term Eurosceptism, nor his opposition to any war unless it is against the interests of the west, nor his insouciance in the face of evidence of ant-Semitism in his party nor the vile behaviour of many of his acolytes towards their rivals – none of it takes the glow off his halo.  Peak Corbyn, like peak oil, seems to always be further away than predicted.

The Brexit clock is ticking.  In less than ten months time we will have left the political structure of the European Union. Depending on the terms of the eventual deal Mrs May negotiates we may have left the Single Market and the Customs Union too. If Mrs May lands a deal that satisfies most of her MPs then her party will continue to enjoy the support of over 40% of the public and UKIP can be given a local authority funeral.

Maybe it will take until the day after 29th March 2019 for 16 million plus voters to realise that Brexit has actually happened and Labour waved it through. The betrayal of political adultery will finally be revealed as people cease looking the other way, no longer hoping it would just stop. Will they then turn on Corbyn and Labour?  Logically, yes.  But I can’t be sure.  The last couple of years have been one long psephological headache.  I used to pride myself on the ability to read the minds of voters and predict electoral outcomes.  Thousands of hours of canvassing, public meetings, surgeries, letters and emails gave a smell to the wind of public opinion. I now have a blocked nose and just don’t know.  Neither do all the well paid pundits in the media and academia.

One thing is certain – that the Brexit meteorite will strike on 29th March 2019.  When the dust settles we could be looking at a new political landscape.  It’s also possible that the dust will take a long time to clear! Corbyn could still be marching at the head of his true believers and liberalism might still be in the doldrums. Or he could have been rumbled and liberalism will be bouncing back.  I may have lost my political nose but I cling still to my liberal optimism.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Sandra Hammett permalink
    June 1, 2018 6:44 am

    Lib Dems could start rebuilding public trust by making an honest apology for failures during coalition, when people forgive they’ll start listening again.

    • June 1, 2018 8:15 am

      Sandra, Nick Clegg apologised while still Deputy PM for the mishandling of tuition fees. The coalition government lasted 5 years and in that space of time any government will do things that annoy different groups of people. Do you have a specific policy in mind?

      • Sandra Hammett permalink
        June 1, 2018 11:55 am

        Exactly Nick Clegg, yesterday’s man, made an apology DURING the Coalition. Vince is leader now. Not only was he there but he has the benefit of hindsight. Learn from the experience and draw a line under it. Make a fresh appeal to voters, rather than pretending we don’t have an albatross around our neck.

  2. Doug Reid permalink
    June 1, 2018 8:07 am

    Meteorite or not Brexit is going to be an unmitigated disaster for this country & I, for one, cannot understand why in all the light of evidence that the Leavers haven’t seen the error of their ways & swung back to REMAIN…..After we leave we will be the laughing stock of Europe & LEAVERS will be laughing on the other side of their faces when they find out how much a foreign holiday will cost!

  3. Doug Reid permalink
    June 1, 2018 8:22 am

    I also agree with you that the more serious consequence will be shrinking tax receipts to be used for the NHS……….Our ageing population will All be on trolleys in A+E instead of tucked up in a bed.

  4. Rappin' Ronnie Reagan permalink
    July 13, 2018 12:22 pm

    Mr Gorbachev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!!!!

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