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The next general election: Two parties battle for the wretched voters of England

Everything the Conservatives and Labour are doing is being carefully mapped out towards the next general election. It may come as late as January 2025, but Rishi Sunak, as prime minister, has the power to call it at any time before then. This year we’re witnessing pre-election campaigning, complete with practice run via the May 4th local elections for some English councils. At the general election, England will matter the most. Win in England and you can win Westminster.

Last year’s Summer of Discontent didn’t spark into anything special. It just preceded The Autumn of Not Much, which in turn was followed by The Winter of Fuck All. The British people looked across the channel at the rioting French, saw such behaviour as fitting for the continent but not for them, and appealed for union leaders to get them back to work as quickly as possible. Any pay rise would do, which funnily enough suits both the union bosses and the government. The French have been protesting rises to the pension age, a battle the British didn’t even bother to turn up to, many years ago. It’s amazing we have any rights or standard of living at all, but the Tories and Labour are both working on that.

As the gap between the two parties in the opinion polls closes, so too the policies. Because of Liz Truss’s astonishing (and not in a good way) few weeks as prime minister, economic policy is like a narrow mountain pass. There is little for either party to promise and there is hardly any money to promise with. Keep hold of those Brexit dividends for a while longer, because the UK is not in any shape to cash them.

Tory-supporting newspapers set so much of the political agenda in the UK. Keir Starmer will find that, as we edge closer to the election proper, there is nothing he can do to avoid being painted as a danger to the country on every issue. They will tell their readers that the Tories have got a few things wrong but thank God they were in charge rather than Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer’s predecessor. They will explain to the country that Starmer was part of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and supportive of his policies.

Both the main party leaders are haunted by the spectres of former leaders. For Starmer this is entirely self-inflicted. He resurrected Corbyn, made him prominent, only to conduct a one-man purge. Starmer’s apparent belief that the newspapers will give him credit for sorting out the former leader is ridiculous and naive. It’s the sort of mistake someone makes when they’ve only been in politics for a handful of years and have been elevated to the top of their party on the basis of their knighthood. 

It is true to say that Corbyn was a liability for Labour in 2019, but not necessarily for the reasons people make out. The individual policies the party had (similar to those in 2017 when Corbyn wiped out Theresa May’s majority) were very popular. The established wisdom is that people didn’t like them when they were all put together in one overarching manifesto. That is a simplistic narrative. Labour’s problem in 2019 certainly was Corbyn, but it was less about policy and more about how he became associated with what the public saw as a dysfunctional parliament, continually stopping Brexit. Corbyn’s Brexit policy in that election compounded the issue by including a fresh referendum in which he would, bizarrely, refuse to support either side.

Starmer’s solution is to stop Corbyn from even standing again as a Labour MP. The last time a Labour leader refused to allow a high profile left winger to stand for an election was when Tony Blair refused to sanction Ken Livingstone as their candidate for London mayor in 2000. Livingstone stood as an independent, won, and the official Labour candidate polled just 12%. 

Starmer, by creating this division himself, has opened himself up to criticism from Corbyn at every turn. Corbyn can’t now be punished for being outspoken, and he has a constituency of supporters within Labour who will help widen the division. We have seen this already with a storm over the Easter weekend with Labour social media posts, critical of Sunak’s position on child sex offenders. Labour was accused, and rightly so, of dog whistle politics by none other than Corbyn himself. Other key figures on the left also spoke out publicly. Starmer might well think he will need to take further action against the left. To the public though, this runs the risk of looking like a divided party not yet ready to govern.

Sunak’s spectre is also an unkempt never-should-have-been, who we’re all fed up of hearing about. It’s remarkable to think that Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn used to stare across the dispatch box at each other in parliament. The idea we have any kind of meritocracy burned at that moment. 1,000 years of history, bottled and found unwanted at the bottom of a box in the back room of a charity shop. 

Like Corbyn, Johnson is a huge risk to Sunak, and again, it is of his own making, in a way. Sunak is blamed by Johnson supporters for bringing down the messy haired TV panel host. Johnson wants the job back and it is his 2019 manifesto that Sunak is currently living out of. He really could do with some policies of his own. Sunak and Johnson are therefore linked. The fortunes of one directly impact the fortunes of the other. Amid rumours that Johnson wants to stand in a safer seat, what will Sunak do? If the Tories lose big Johnson could be gone, if he stands where he currently sits. Will Sunak be brave and block a move? How will he react if Johnson is barred from the House of Commons for being a liar? These are the questions that will decide both their fates, but Sunak is the one that gets to choose.

Sunak was the do-nothing prime minister until the start of this year. Then, with the Windsor Framework, it suddenly appeared he was actually working on stuff, things he was willing to actually talk about in public. For a week or two that agreement with the EU on Northern Ireland’s arrangements looked like it might get widespread support. Ultimately it has not been the breakthrough he was hoping for, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Boris Johnson supporters voting against it. For the Johnson supporters it signifies a reversal of the terrible Brexit he went out of his way to deliver. Johnson had pushed every sinew to make Brexit as rubbish as he could and he certainly wasn’t going to stand idly by while someone came along with the stated aim of making amends. For the DUP, it was part of a longer term strategy to ensure they don’t have to be “deputies” in a Northern Ireland government led by Sinn Fein.

Sunak had better luck with blocking a Bill in Scotland that would have extended the right for trans people to self-identify to those aged 16 and over. This policy again provides an example of the two main parties getting closer together in the run-up to the election. Labour’s response was to agree with them on this issue but not for the same reasons. 

The stated objection from Sunak was that it could cause legal problems across the whole UK. That’s surely the point of a legal system; to iron these issues out. They know that this plays well with their core voters. On top of that it provided a great opportunity for Sunak to put the then-leader of the SNP in her place and make an issue out of devolution at the same time. Starmer’s agreement on the policy came from his belief that 16 is too young for people to make such a decision.

On immigration there is an odd stance again from Labour. They oppose the horrendous Tory scheme to deny asylum seekers rights and remove them to third countries for processing. Instead of shouting from the rooftops about how unpleasant this is in principle, however, Labour are complaining that it just won’t work. This suggests that they also want to appear tough on immigration – otherwise known as a race to be as shitty as possible to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Crime and immigration will be areas of brutal policy initiatives when the campaigns are finally unleashed.

The reason both parties are fighting to be the most horrendous is that both parties are trying to attract the same voters. For the last few months the Tories have trailed Labour in the polls, often by 20 points. The so-called Red Wall seats are the key battleground and it is in these areas that the current polls suggest the Tories are doing very badly indeed. For many months there have been a large number of 2019 Tory voters simply saying “don’t know” when pollsters ask them how they intend to vote. They are now starting to say “Conservative” again. For this reason, nobody should think for a moment that Labour will definitely win the next election. The Tories have a chance, they have the newspapers on their side and they are up against a divided Labour that can come unstuck on practically every issue.

Jon Bigger

Image: Guy Smallman

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