Not that long ago, Labour dominated British politics and the Tories were said to be finished. Indeed, fourteen years ago, in September 2001, Labour stood at the height of its powers. Its leader Tony Blair had just won a second landslide and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, was preparing substantial increases in public spending, predicated on the delusional idea that the combination of his alleged genius and globalisation had produced economic conditions that would remain benign in perpetuity.
With Labour so dominant, it was fashionable back then to talk of the stuffy old Conservative party being on the wrong side of history. Would the British Tories ever govern again? It looked as though they were sunk. In 2001 they were certainly locked out of large parts of the UK, including Scotland, where they had just one seat. The Tories made for a pathetic sight in that period as they struggled to find a way to deal with a Labour leader who seemed to have the economy rattling along against a becalmed international backdrop.
And then came 9/11, and the horror of the attack on America in which 2606 victims were killed. Blair’s response that day, and the decisions that flowed from his resolve to support US action, shaped the rest of his premiership and, it turned out, began the process that doomed Labour. It did not look like it at the time, when Labour went on to win the 2005 general election, albeit with a reduced majority. But the coalition of interests that Blair had built skilfully, encompassing aspirational voters, the traditionally Conservative south and core Labour areas in the north and Scotland, had started to come apart. In Scotland in particular, those voters who were sceptical on Iraq had another outlet in the SNP, a Nationalist party that had been gifted a forum in which to exploit grievance and advance the cause of Scottish separatism in the shape of the devolved Scottish Parliament introduced in Blair’s first term.
When the economy then crashed in 2008, and the UK was left particularly badly exposed to an international financial crisis, the game was up for New Labour. The promise of the party that it would safeguard the economy and be trustworthy on defending Britain’s place in the world had turned out to be hollow. On foreign affairs, the economy and the constitution, Blair and Brown had proven to have been about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
As a result, fourteen years on from September 2001, the high watermark of New Labour, it is Labour that now looks doomed and the Tories are resurgent. The hard left MP Jeremy Corbyn is likely to be elected Labour leader this weekend. Even if by some chance he is not chosen, the winner will have to contend with a party membership and affiliates in which something close to half have voted for a full-blown, nationalise the lot, be nice to Hamas, 1980s-style socialist. The left, and the unions who organised for Corbyn and used him as their “Manchurian Candidate”, are not going to give up after a defeat. Labour has undergone a proper infiltration by the hard left and some of his most determined supporters (not all), with their cursing of opponents and sinister class war rhetoric, have revealed themselves to be very bad people indeed.
For Britain’s Conservatives, this farce obviously creates an intellectual and electoral opportunity. If good, moderate Labour people now find themselves outnumbered by the hard left, perhaps they can be persuaded to switch their backing to the Tories.
That being the case, it is already being said by some senior Tories that their party should “move left” to occupy this space left by Labour as it goes, collectively, off its rocker. The idea will sound appealing to those Tory strategists who see politics as a chess game, although it would be an unwise move. Not only will it possibly be thought insulting and opportunistic by many of those good Labour people, horrified by what has happened to the party they support, it also underestimates the capacity of non-Tories for regeneration and organisation. They are depressed now, and fatalistic, but in time they may come to realise that the only way back is not to complain about the result and the infiltration. Instead, they must set about recruiting middle-ground Labour voters to save their party from the new loony left and outvote them in the re-selection battles moderate MPs will face in parliamentary seats.
There is a more fundamental reason for the Tories to avoid shifting left: Britain doesn’t need to move leftwards and it would be a mistake to flirt with the idea, even as a rhetorical wheeze. Taxation is already too high; the UK’s national debt is approaching £1.5 trillion; the last thing the Tories should be doing is talking as though expanding the role of the state even further is a good idea in the hope that it will con depressed Labourites. They should stick right where they are, having managed to get themselves in a good place in the general election. If anything they need to do even more to extol the entrepreneurial self-employment revolution that is underway in the UK and to concentrate on fixing an over-complex tax system.
Then there is Corbyn himself. Some Tories are sniggering about the bearded bard of Islington, Fidel Castro in a vest and polyester shirt, and of course it is highly unlikely that he will ever win a general election. That does not mean he is guaranteed to fail to make an impact before he is removed or loses. He may do very well on an issue or two, where the Tories are not as strong as they think, particularly if he presents himself as the champion of the working poor and defends those who will lose badly when the government’s deep cuts to tax credits are introduced. These changes will be hugely unpopular, sooner rather than later.
Most of all, it is clear that if Corbyn is chosen it will, inevitably, shift the national conversation in the UK leftwards, leaving the broadcasters with an obligation to give him much airtime for some exceedingly left-wing ideas. He will use populist language to attack profit, economic freedom and the City of London. In such circumstances, the Tories shouldn’t give the impression that they accept left-wing assumptions in an attempt to double bluff the voters. From first principles, in the interests of the country, they should be championing markets and competition as the route to increased prosperity and social mobility. They should be getting ready to fight him on the fundamentals.