• Sat. Aug 13th, 2022

As the Conservatives implode, the red wall suddenly seems in Labour’s grasp

Jan 4, 2022

The Brexit balloon is bursting, the cabinet is rife with division – and Keir Starmer and co are increasingly appealing to voters

“I fucking hate the Labour party, they’re a fucking disgrace … They’ve betrayed the working classes, they’ve betrayed ordinary people.” Thus spake Noel Gallagher, the former Oasis guitarist, and out it poured on to Twitter.

Well, he would, wouldn’t he? He long ago regretted that embarrassing Cool Britannia moment of euphoria when Tony Blair summoned stars to a 1997 Downing Street party.

Gallagher’s purist state of mind is shared by a rump of the left, who feel forever betrayed. In my last column I looked ahead with a glimmer of optimism that, after 12 wilderness years, Labour might be on the road back to power. The usual below-the-line warfare had broken out, with responses such as: “I left the Labour party. I will not vote for Starmer, his policies or anyone who supports him.” “He has introduced a Stalin-like purge of the membership, the grassroots, the activists.” “They are worse than the Conservatives.” “A clone of the Tory party.” “Tory-lite.” “Cancelled my membership.”

Here’s a Twitter trope I get all the time: Polly Toynbee and the Guardian helped put the Tories in power (often accompanied by the hashtag #rightwingmedia). Odd this, as the Guardian (and I) backed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour against the Tories in 2017 and 2019. If only we had such influence, the Tories wouldn’t have governed twice as long as Labour all my life.

Sometimes I answer back, other times I retell what Labour achieved when last in power: SureStart, tax credits, civil partnerships, more doctors, nurses and beds that helped reduce long hospital waits, increased school and further education funds, an Equality and Human Rights Commission, free entry to museums, a doubling of foreign aid, free nurseries, lifting more than a million pensioners and more than a million children out of absolute poverty – despite the tragedy of Iraq.

But of course this legacy wasn’t enough. It was too easily uprooted, never satisfying the limitless hopes of those of us on the left. Maybe it’s admirable to hold out for better, but I will always back whoever I think can best deny the Conservatives power. Yes, sometimes, that means compromising to win votes.

As our archaic electoral system kills new parties, capturing an existing one is the only viable route for a political cause. Labour has had periods of leftist entryism after losing elections. But suddenly that online raucousness sounds like voices from the past, fringe noises coming from outside a party that has since transformed itself. Labour MPs now find local parties no longer locked in warfare. Over the next weeks they are all up for reselection: expect no upsets. The tail end of the antisemitism trauma is dragging on with expensive court cases: Corbyn stays out while he rejects the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s overall findings on antisemitism. Meanwhile the shadow cabinet is proposing policies such as wealth taxes, a £28bn green new deal and fair pay deals, all of which refutes the “Tory clone” jibe. The party is inching towards electability.

But look on the other side, where the Tory party is devouring itself, eaten up by the Ukip-inflected extremists who have been selecting its MPs for years. Brexit was their opening salvo but this breed of libertarians are now pushing other policies – spending cuts and deregulation – that are unsellable. A recent poll of 57 red wall seats in the Mail on Sunday put Labour 16% ahead of the Conservatives and up 5% nationally, with Keir Starmer outscoring Boris Johnson. The paper revealed a litany of lost voter trust, reporting “panic among MPs who fear they are doomed” and a “frenzy of bitching”.

The chancellor’s rift with the prime minister runs through the party, which summoned a Pied Piper populist to bribe voters but balks at paying for his tune. With Rishi Sunak’s wallet shut, the only thing Michael Gove can magic up for his delayed “levelling up” policy is ectoplasm. With no shine left on Brexit or Johnson, there’s no glue holding that strange north-south voter coalition together.

The months ahead will bring even more problems. April’s cost-of-living collision of rising inflation, energy bills, national insurance and council taxes will punish the government in May’s local elections.

Rarely has Labour ever been quite as out of touch with voters as the brand of libertarianism that is consuming the Tory party. Nearly 100 Conservative MPs voted against Covid precautions despite public backing for compulsory passports. The cabinet took a reckless position on new year clubbing, yet the Sunday Telegraph still complained that “Nannyism has won”. Its recent editorial commanded the Tories to “fulfil Brexit, deregulate, lower taxes” in a country “swollen by regulations and spending”. This crescendo of libertarian demands is the only tune you now hear from the Tories and their press as the party vacates the playing field, just as Labour steps up to re-engage voters.

The right’s “freedoms” of post-Brexit deregulation would have publicly unacceptable consequences. Do they mean dirty food, Dickensian labour and unsafe buildings, unchecked by ridiculed environmental health officers? They never say. Abandoning their tax rise would lead to the NHS and social care collapsing. This new strain of rightwing anarchy is no longer anchored to old conservative interests in business, agriculture or even the City. It’s new to hear industrialists, farmers and financiers angry at damage done by their erstwhile party.

The Tories seem unhinged by Brexit’s balloon bursting, with the UK losing £12bn of trade in October alone and the Office for Budget Responsibility estimating Brexit will cause a 4% drop in GDP. It seems unlikely that this out-of-control party will choose anyone who can bring them back to earth before an election. If not, impulsive spending cuts and deregulations will lose them votes, and Labour will be right there, feet firmly planted on the ground.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

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