30 November 2015

Will Osborne, Mandelson and the ruling elite run Britain forever?


It’s two years since I wrote a piece for The Times wondering if British voters deserved a realignment of the political system:

“At the moment we don’t have much choice. Whoever is elected we get membership of the EU, historically large-scale immigration, privatised utilities, intervention in Afghanistan, heavy subsidy of renewable energies, nuclear power, large prison populations and so on. All the people who have run Britain since 1979 belong to what I’d call the Liberal Party. Thatcher, Blair, Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Johnson — all of them have moved the country in a laissez-faire direction. They’ve either been economic liberals or social liberals. All have wanted to reduce the role of the State in the economy. All have advanced individualism while getting taxpayers to pay for the consequences of individual liberties (eg the financing of broken families).”

I suggested that if the political parties were formed from scratch they would look very different from today. I sketched (and it really was sketched) out four possible new parties and who might belong to them and what they’d stand for:


[Copyright: The Times]

As many people pointed out in response, a five fold division would make things tidier (especially on the Left) and The Economist’s Jeremy Cliffe’s “Westminster reimagined” offered such a framework six months before I had put finger to keyboard.

I can’t remember any other article I’ve written for the paper attracting such interest and I thought it would be useful – two years on – to check on whether any kind of realignment is underway or whether the “old politics” will be hard to shake. I can readily identify six key changes since the piece and six significant constants. Let’s start with what’s different…

1. Labour was nearly wiped out in Scotland at the general election and replaced by the Scottish National Party.

2. Huge numbers of extra left-wing activists have become involved in politics. The SNP had its post-referendum surge in membership and Labour has seen its ranks swell as part of the process of electing the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn.

3. The transformed composition of the Labour Party means that it will not be led by a Blairite or moderate left-winger any time soon – even after Jeremy Corbyn is toppled (which is surely a matter of when, not if).

4. The Lib Dems have been smashed as a parliamentary force and (beyond the House of Lords) will not hold significant power for many years.

5. At May’s general election Ukip won 3.9 million votes (a 400% increase on the previous general election) and the Greens won 1.2 million votes (also a 400% increase). Thanks to first-past-the-post they got one seat each as a reward.

6. A precedent of multi-party TV election debates has been established – giving smaller parties by-election levels of publicity and status.

But at least as much has also stayed the same…

1. The Conservatives – back in power with their first majority since 1992 – have stayed intact, weathering the emergence of Ukip and what might have been an historic split on the Right.

2. Not a single Labour MP has defected to another party – despite the fact Ed Miliband has been replaced by an IRA-Hamas-Hezbollah sympathising leader and a shadow chancellor who quotes Mao whilst performing his day job and lists the overthrow of capitalism as one of his extra-curricular interests. (I’m now not sure what it would take for a moderate Blairite MP to defect).

3. The British people remain almost completely uninterested in electoral reform even though Blair stayed PM on the back of just 35.2% of the vote in 2005; Cameron became PM with just 36.1% of those who voted in 2010; and Cameron stayed PM (this time with his own majority) with just 36.9% of the vote (or a quarter of eligible voters).

4. The young continue to be ruled by the elderly. Only 43% of 18-24 year-olds voted in 2015 compared to an estimated 78% of over 65s.

5. Devolution to the whole English nation still hasn’t happened (in any meaningful way).

6. The political parties remain financed by big private sector interests or big unions – as if the internet (and web-based fundraising) hadn’t been invented.

So what next? Here are eight questions – the answers to which will help determine any realignment to come:

1. Could Tory unity crack in the absence of a credible opposition? My Times colleague Matthew Parris predicted that if Labour changed radically under Jeremy Corbyn that the Tories would change radically too. His basic argument was that the Tories are a broad coalition held together by the need to keep the Labour “barbarians” out. If Labour no longer look like a credible opposition – and they certainly don’t at the moment – there is a danger that Tory unity cracks. I hope I’m being fair to Matthew in that summary of his argument. There are early signs that the election of Corbyn has encouraged Cameron and Osborne to move in a Blairite-friendly direction. Exhibit A was David Cameron’s party conference speech with its emphasis on equality of opportunity and its downplaying of issues like Europe and immigration. Exhibit B was last week’s Autumn Statement and the Chancellor’s embrace of more tax rises and fewer spending cuts. How do more traditional Tories react to this? And, most pertinently, how do Tories react in Years III and IV of this parliament when – I predict – it will be clear that EU renegotiation has been negligible; immigration levels remain high; and Britain is still borrowing at historically high levels? Will we see a further decline in Tory membership?

2. What happens to the Tory coalition after the EU referendum? The big political event in the last parliament turned out to be the Scottish referendum and its aftermath. Labour in Scotland (“red Tories”) collapsed after looking like it was in league with the “anti-Scottish Tories”. If the Tory leadership keeps Britain in Europe (more likely than not) on largely unchanged terms (Cameron’s renegotiation ambitions could hardly be more unambitious) the next Tory leader might be an Outer – especially if the result is close. This will especially be true if the country votes to Remain but party supporters vote to Leave (as 71% are currently inclined to do). If the British people vote to Leave a lot of pro-EU Tories will be unhappy and will Ukip’s reason for existence end?

3. Can Ukip get its act together? With Labour alienating its heartland voters – presenting a big test for Nigel Farage in this week’s Oldham by-election – and the Tories potentially moving away from their core vote… we could see Ukip support bubble up again. I don’t, however, think it can more than bubble until it gets its act together. There’s too much nastiness in Ukip – most recently exemplified by key Ukip donor Arron Banks and his remarks about Douglas Carswell. Ukip can only flourish if it “nices up” and if it adds the kind of blue collar friendly economic policy to its recipe that Patrick O’Flynn MEP tried to embed in the party – before he fell out with Mr Farage.

4. What if the Tory government is unpopular by 2020? The theory is that the Conservatives will win the next election because there is not a credible alternative government on the horizon. At the time of writing that looks like a good bet but politics moves faster than ever these days. Justin Trudeau began his country’s election campaign in third place with some people suggesting that the once proud Canadian Liberal Party he led was heading for extinction. He’s now Canada’s PM with a completely unexpected parliamentary majority – and, off-with-his-head, is making Her Majesty feel a bit old. If a government is unpopular enough – as Stephen Harper’s Canadian Conservatives were – voters will find a way to get rid of it. Campaigns – contrary to much conventional wisdom – can change things. Sometimes radically.

5. How many views are still unrepresented? The main party leaders still agree on a great deal of things. None wants radically less immigration. None has the courage to at least try and limit pensioner entitlements. None support an English parliament. All support the current NHS structure. Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader there is much less sameness but there is also the leftwards/ centrewards drift in the Conservative Party I mentioned earlier. Gaps for new political movements could emerge.

6. Will British politics discover the internet? So long as the Tories can rely upon hedge fund millionaires and Labour can rely on Len McCluskey there will be no big need for the parties to turn to lots of small donors for money – and political ideas. It will be a political movement without access to Big Unions or Big Business that will most harness the internet. That is how Bernie Sanders has become such a force in left-wing US politics. The self-styled socialist Senator from Vermont raised donations from a million Americans even more quickly than Barack Obama. Americans have always given a lot more to politics than Brits but if Brits are angry enough and hungry enough for change – perhaps Brits will embrace internet giving too. Post-Cameron, Steve Hilton might even lend them a hand with his CrowdPac fundraising model?

7. Could new, disruptive politicians emerge from Britain’s emerging city states? The most popular politician in the country – and very possibly the next PM – is Boris Johnson (according to ComRes). If Boris does become PM it’ll be proof that, like America, a high powered mayoral/ governor role is a good route to even higher office. After George Osborne and Greg Clark have delivered on their plan for city regions like Greater Manchester to have directly-elected, powerful new mayors we may see a larger number of disruptive new political personalities enter the nation’s political life – including people from outside of conventional politics and – more extraordinarily these days – from outside of London.

8. Will Labour get interested in electoral reform? I’m not a great expert on electoral reform or the Labour Party so hesitate to say much on the combined subject of “Labour and electoral reform” but Ben Bradshaw claimed to be the only person standing in the recent Labour leadership contest who was an enthusiast for reforming the voting system. Mr Corbyn certainly has little interest in change (none of his views have changed since 1983 as far as I can tell). So long as this situation stays the same and both of Britain’s two main parties put electoral change on the back burner it will be hard to see major realignment.

Osborne and Mandelson Monster1

[Image by Carla Millar]

Let’s go back to where we started. Two years ago I argued that the “Liberals” in that fourfold graphic above have run Britain for a long time. If enough people are happy with that “Liberal” politics there’ll be no big realignment. If sufficient people aren’t content, however, change is inevitable. Today the dominant politics is a combination of George Osborne and Peter Mandelson. We could call it Osdelson or Manborne politics. It involves Britain being a member of the EU. Immigration being high. Free trade expanding. The rich getting richer. State spending on the NHS, schools and aid being high. Grands projets (like the Dome and HS2). And a preference for every parent to be at work rather than at home, building family and community life.

I asked Lord Mandelson at a recent event at which George Osborne was speaking if he disagreed with the Tory Chancellor on very much. Oh yes, he joked, quick as a flash: the top rate of tax is far too high. He was grinning and I think he was joking, therefore. But I’m certainly not sure.

Tim Montgomerie is a Times columnist and a CapX contributor.