Friday, December 13, 2019

A grim night for progressives

Well, it's all over. Here's my take on a grim election for progressives - and where Labour, the Lib Dems and the country go from here.

1. The seeds of what has been a catastrophic defeat for Labour were sown in the disastrous leadership election that took place in the autumn of 2015, following Ed Miliband's defeat on a programme that was markedly to the left of the one Gordon Brown had fought and lost on in 2010. It ought to have been clear to Labour at this point that it needed to return to a more centrist position next time round, and it had three such candidates to choose from with recent ministerial experience in Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham - all of them MPs from the North or Midlands where Labour most needed to win back support. Instead, it chose a grizzled old Trotskyist from North London who had never held government office and carried more baggage than a 747. The theory, oft-heard among the fantasists of the hard left, that Labour lost elections through not being left-wing enough, has now been tested to destruction and found to be the arrant nonsense it always was. The truth is Britain will never elect a hard-left government because, unlike Italy or Greece but like Germany and the US, Marxism is simply not in the country's political DNA. Neither will the British public ever elect someone who they cannot trust with the nation's defences, or someone who, rightly or wrongly, they perceive to have been the friend of terrorists.

2. The normal rules of politics - that elections are won and lost in the centre ground - have thus reasserted themselves, and unless Labour returns there, it is finished as a party of government. That does not mean abandoning its principles or even all of the policies it fought this election on, but it does mean they have to be properly costed and it does mean having a leader who inspires confidence and hope rather than anxiety and fear. Kier Starmer is perhaps unlucky in that, while he would fit the bill, there will be huge pressure for the party to choose a woman this time round. Cooper, whose reputation as a parliamentarian has continued to grow since her 2015 defeat, should certainly stand again, while Jess Phillips is the standout candidate among moderates of a younger vintage. Angela Rayner could be a Kinnock-type figure who comes up to the leadership from the left but then tacks towards the centre, but the choice of Corbynite favourite Rebecca Long-Bailey would indicate that nothing has been learned. Whoever they choose, Labour is going to find it even harder to win next time as, armed with their majority, the Tories will now introduce the boundary changes that have been blocked in the last two hung Parliaments.

3. I do not buy the argument that Labour lost because this election was all about Brexit and specifically because it changed its policy from respecting the result of the 2016 referendum to holding a second one. This will be the main point at issue in the leadership election, and it will be deployed against both Starmer and Emily Thornberry, who are both (in the Corbynistas' eyes) guilty of forcing their dear leader to change tack. The truth is Jeremy Corbyn's handling of Brexit has been a catalogue of misjudgements from the start and a salutory lesson in being careful what you wish for. I say this as a passionate Remainer, but it is clear in retrospect that Corbyn should have backed Theresa May's original deal, which would kept the UK in a temporary customs union while the over-arching trade deal was being negotiated. Had he done so, we would have had a markedly softer Brexit and we might also have been spared the Johnson premiership. Instead Corbyn chose short-term tactics over long-term strategy and party politics over the national interest, and the public has duly punished him for it.

4. Labour also needs to stop blaming the "hostile media" for its repeated election defeats. I don't approve of The Sun or the Mail any more than most people of a centre-left persuasion, but at the end of the day newspapers do not exist in a vacuum; they are commercial entities which reflect what they perceive to be the opinions of their readerships. If a sensible, centrist Labour Party was to re-emerge from this debacle, one with clear public appeal and a leader with positive polling ratings, the newspapers would soon follow suit. The Sun would not have backed Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005 had its readers not liked him more than they liked the Tory alternatives at the time. Newspapers always want to be on the winning side, because it shows they are in touch with their readers - but Corbyn always looked like a loser.

5. As I said in my earlier post on Wednesday, the big disappointment of the campaign was Jo Swinson and hence I am not surprised that it culminated for her in the loss of her seat. I had high hopes for her when she was elected Lib Dem leader but her handling of the role has been hubristic in the extreme and showed that Lib Dem leaders should always avoid talking about what they will do if they win an outright majority - because it has as much credibility as me saying what I would do as England football manager. From the point of the view of the party, I think her defeat could prove to be something a blessing in disguise, in that it has removed a leader who, sadly, was not up to the job. The choice will now surely lie between Sir Ed Davey - highly experienced but, like Swinson, possibly tainted by having held office in the Coalition - and Layla Moran - unproven, but possibly the fresh face the party needs as it seeks to rebrand.

6. And so to Boris Johnson. He has won the majority he craved partly because of the incompetence of his opponents - see points 1-5 above - but also because once again the Tories have demonstrated that they are the most ruthlessly effective election-winning machine in the democratic world. On the central issue of Brexit, they had a very clear message that could be easily understood and, by doing a deal with Nigel Farage, they united the Leave vote while leaving the Remainers bitterly divided. At times, the Tories' hard-headedness has overstepped the boundaries of what I would regard as decent behaviour, and the rise of political lying has been perhaps the most concerning feature of the entire election. There was a 48-hour period, between his refusal to be interviewed by Andrew Neil and his unsympathetic response to the plight of the boy found sleeping on a hospital floor, when I began to wonder if it was beginning to unravel for Johnson, but it turned out - and this is the hardest thing for me to write in this entire piece - that Dominic Cummings did know what he was doing after all.

7. As to where Brexit goes from here, the big hope of those of us who wanted to avoid a no-deal Brexit and who now want to avoid a no-deal exit from the transition period is that the size of Johnson's majority will enable him to shaft Farage, marginalise the ERG and ultimately pursue a softer version of Brexit than was implied in the Tory manifesto, either by agreeing to extend the transition period or by agreeing to keep the UK more closely aligned to EU rules than the purists in his party would like. Equally, though, it may enable him to pursue a harder Brexit without any fear of it being blocked by Parliament. Given the need to protect manufacturing and jobs in the 'left-behind' towns that have just voted Tory for the first time, my hunch is that his instincts will be towards the former and his 'let the healing begin speech' earlier today appeared to bear this out, but, on this point, it is too early to tell which version of Johnson is going to turn up.

8. While the immediate focus will doubtless be on 'Getting Brexit Done' - in the narrow sense of us actually leaving the EU - the bigger story of the election, and possibly the bigger challenge for Johnson, may well turn out to be the future of the Union, with England and Scotland now clearly pulling in different political directions. Johnson boasts of leading a 'One Nation' government but if he is not very careful he may well turn out to be the Prime Minister who presides over the fragmentation of this one nation into two or even three. He faces a catch-22 which he will need all his political skills to navigate. If he denies Nicola Sturgeon her wish for a second independence referendum next year, the SNP is likely to win big again in the 2021 Holyrood elections and thereby claim an even more compelling mandate for holding the vote. If he gives in to the demand, there is a chance the Scots might actually vote to leave the UK. Given Johnson's propensity for political gambles, he might just calculate that holding indyref2 sooner rather than later would give the Unionist side the best chance of victory - but as we know only too well, PMs who gamble on referendum outcomes can easily come a cropper.

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