Let’s take one step back from last night’s Tory by-election triumph. It wasn’t just the win in Copeland – the most impressive of its kind by a sitting government for 51 years – that will have lifted Team May’s spirits.
The failure of “Babies will die if the Tories win” – one of Labour’s most despicable NHS scare campaigns (and there have been many contenders over the years for that particular dishonour) – suggests that the most effective campaigning bludgeon of British politics’ new nasty party might finally have been recognised by voters for the political device that it is.
But there’s an even bigger cause for Conservative glee. The party that, under Nigel Farage, scared the political daylights out of Tory MPs in marginal seats for most of the last parliament, and which forced David Cameron to hold the EU referendum that ended his premiership, may be in steeper decline than Leicester City FC.
Paul Nuttall fell well short of the unhelpfully high expectations of victory in the Stoke by-election that had been set for him by Nigel Farage (who, er, stood unsuccessfully for Parliament on seven separate occasions) – just possibly set so high because Trump’s bestest British buddy can’t bear the idea of the increasing multitude who have succeeded him actually achieving something that he could not.
But by losing to Gareth Snell, one of the least impressive Labour candidates in recent memory – at a time when the party of brotherly love doesn’t have any, in the seat which Mr Nuttall himself had described as “the capital of Brexit”, and when the Leader of the Opposition is the least popular of the post-war period – Nuttall’s almost-third-placed finish suggests that the Ukip battle plan to replace Labour in its working-class heartlands is, to use one of Mr Snell’s Twitter expressions, something of a “polished turd”.
But what about Theresa May’s ambition to win over traditionally Left-wing voters who supported Brexit? And, more generally, the OFWs (Ordinary Working Families apparently being the new JAMs (Just About Managings)?
The victory of Trudy Harrison in Copeland, a local mum of four and now another Northern Tory MP, suggests it has real ooomph. And it’s hardly happened accidentally:
– In deciding that controlling immigration was the absolute non-negotiable ingredient of her “Brexit means Brexit” recipe, Mrs May drove a dagger into Ukip’s heart.
– She has more or less made sure of its political death by echoing its 1950s rhetoric on foreign aid, grammar schools and the green belt.
– The economic interventionism that she has been trying to pass through her government’s economic policy committee (so far largely unsuccessfully, because of a roadblock called Phillip Hammond) echoes the potentially potent populism of much of Trumpism.
– And in contrast to her predecessor, who had planned a big social reform programme for the very poorest had Remain prevailed (around the theme of “life chances”), there has been much less focus on such people – who don’t tend to vote – from Mrs May. From day one she’s been determined to build relations with the Mail and Sun, and through them with their swing-voting readers, that are as healthy as Mr Cameron’s were testy.
And it is that topic, namely former PMs with awkward relationships with the tabloid press, which brings me to the really significant thing here – and to Tony Blair and his speech of a week ago.
It was a curious thing, wasn’t it? If he had really wanted to stop Brexit, why wait until after MPs had voted to trigger Article 50? And why a pregnant nine-month gap since the referendum?
I don’t believe the point of the speech was to incubate a new pro-Brussels movement. I think TB is trying to father a new political party – but hasn’t quite yet got the courage to say so.
And although I would never vote for it, I also have to admit that the balance of politics in our country needs him to succeed.
Even Tim Farron, not the most towering statesman of our time, is beginning to resuscitate the dead Lib Dem bird with a pro-EU, pro-immigration, anti-Trump, environmental, we-love-the-NHS etc shtick.
If the party I have previously described as “the Liberals” in my two fantasy realignments of British politics for The Times (first in December 2013 and again last August) had a proper leader – such as Mr B in his prime, or perhaps the equivalent of the still-to-be-tested Emmanuel Macron of France – we could have a similarly-sized party and/or movement to be the counterweight to the politics of Mrs May.
The framing Mr Blair has repeatedly used to attempt to define this coming era is “open” v “closed”. Reminiscent of his “forward not back” sloganeering at elections, it actually tells us more about him than about what really separates the politics of him and the likes of Mrs May.
I’d suggest a better, fairer (but still inevitably too simplistic) way of describing the emerging divide – and I appreciate this will really annoy Leftist supporters of Blair, Clegg and Farron. And that’s to see it as about individualism vs communitarianism.
Liberals like Blair and Clegg would hate to think of themselves as individualists. That, after all, is how they saw that dreadful Mrs Thatcher.
But their philosophies are basically rights-based and individualistic. The institutions they most admire, like the welfare state, almost never fulfill what Beveridge had argued they must do and build mutuality. Nearly all modern forms of state welfare have no interest in their clients’ social setting: indeed, many actively compete with that most vital of all people-sized institutions, the family.
Few things uttered by Mrs May since becoming PM have given more of a clue to her philosophy than this sentence from her party conference speech last year. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” she said, to howls in the FT.
For communitarians like this vicar’s daughter, there are real problems with how trade, immigration and investment behaviours disrupt community. She is particularly anti- the big IT companies who don’t take national security seriously, and immigration-dependent big businesses who do little to train up local people as workers.
For liberals, the nation state, the family, the church and so on have little intrinsic value and must not stand in the way of ideas like free movement and state welfare that enable the individual.
Communitarianism’s great vulnerability in this debate is that the things it values – like strong extended family networks that might be blown apart by immigration-related house price inflation – are often not measured. That means they are not on a level playing field in the public debate with the things which individualist liberalism values and which generally are measured – like those immigrants’ contribution to GDP.
At the moment in British politics, the communitarian, more nationalist and sometimes more parochial elements of politics are gathering in one place – inside the Conservative Party around Mrs May and in numbers that can, as yesterday, win elections.
Intellectually and in terms of practical policies, this agenda is not fully developed yet – nor has it been tested by any serious reaction from Conservative libertarians (never, ever large in numbers).
In contrast, the more individualistic, rights-based liberalism has endless ideas and policies. But it is so spread through a number of political parties – some parts of Labour and the Lib Dems, quite a few of the Tory anti-Brexit plotters, and even the Greens and SNP – that it faces being routed by May.
Blair understands that. And as the slow death of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn continues, the need for liberalism’s anti-Brexit movement to become a broader, united enterprise becomes only more obvious.