General election 2019: Labour and the Tories pushing at extremes

Over the last few weeks ‘moderate’ Tories have been stepping down from standing as candidates for parliament. Over a longer time span, ‘moderate’ Labour politicians have been leaving the party and refusing to stand again. The perceived wisdom is that our politics is swinging to gradients of left and right not witnessed for many decades as these moderates disappear from public life. In fact, two very different things are happening within the main UK parties.

When the deputy of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, resigned and decided not to stand again as a parliamentary candidate earlier this week it was rightly seen as the clinching proof of the social democratic wing of the Labour Party taking full control. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that the New Labour adherents have given up hope of controlling the party for some time to come.

There are two outcomes for the Labour Party on December 13th: a government led by Jeremy Corbyn or else opposition and a leadership election. In government, they will be putting their manifesto into action with a parliamentary party fully behind it. In opposition they will be picking a new leader from a shortlist of social democratic MPs. The right have no champion that can gain the votes of the membership. They must now wait in the wings, possibly for decades.

This slow left-wing conversion of the Labour Party has been all about policy. It was never about Corbyn per se, despite the qualms people might have over his handling of antisemitism allegations within the party. It was always a wider issue around ideology for both those on the left and those wanting to move the Labour Party to the centre-ground. There have even been former Labour Party MPs this week that have declared they are campaigning for voters to support Boris Johnson, so ideologically opposed to social democracy, are they.

In terms of the Labour Party then we can say that over the last four years it has indeed shifted to the left. I am expecting that shift to remain even if they lose the election. Social democratic policies are popular in polling and any defeat will no doubt be planted at the door of Corbyn personally. People will move on very quickly. It also helps Labour that we have a Tory Party that is also planning a large increase in public spending. Something different is going with the Tories.

In the Tories, a particular wing of the party is resigning and dropping out: the one nation Tories. This is a tendency within conservatism that argues that any government should govern in the interests of all and encourage a situation where people can stand on their own two feet (in the language they would use). I don’t intend to critique that fallacy when it comes from MPs that voted for and enacted austerity or the obvious ableism in the sentiment. For now, we can just note that it’s what they seriously believe. Theresa May spoke like a one-nation Tory when in power. All that talk about helping the ‘just about managing’ and dealing with ‘burning injustices’ was from the one nation playbook. She didn’t do anything about them because she was stuck on Brexit.

When Boris Johnson came into power he made life tough for his one nation MPs because so many of them were Remainers. So many have subsequently decided not to stand in the upcoming election that we can see this Tory shift has happened in a matter of weeks. However, this shouldn’t be seen as a simple shift to the right. It is a shift to the new right and as explained below is really a shift in personnel, for now. The new right has two main wings within it: the neo-liberals and the neo-conservatives. The neo-liberals are concerned by the size of the state and ensuring a free market. The neo-conservatives are concerned around social fragmentation, law and morality.

In bringing the new right to the fore Johnson brings with it policies that please both sides of this tendency. For the neo-liberals the dream of trade deals away from the EU, for the neo-conservatives a points based immigration system, 20,000 police officers and new prisons.

But this isn’t like the Labour Party shifting their policies towards social democracy. In Labour the change has been seen in the people who have become prominent under Corbyn but also the policies they have adopted. Johnson isn’t shifting policy just yet. He is aware that although he wants more new right Tory MPs to support him parliament, he has to sell conservatism to the country. So one nation policies are mixed in with his plans. This is where the upgrades to hospitals come in and the policies around education. In the recent Queen’s Speech the government announced plans on mental ill health and to consult on adult social care provisions for example. He needs the votes that such one nation ideas can garner.

It is far too simplistic to think that the two main parties have both shifted to the extremes of the British political spectrum. Labour has undoubtedly embraced social democracy but with the Tories the changes are in personnel, not in policy. This election is going to be about public spending and for once, not the criticism of public spending, but the virtues of it.

The Tories have the bizarre task of promising to increase public spending whilst simultaneously arguing that Labour would be reckless with the economy. They will also be arguing to get the economy to around the place it was in 2010 when they started to be strict on public spending. No doubt under scrutiny they will argue that they were right then but now they’ve improved things they can act differently in government.

If we understand that the Tories are currently seeking one nation type votes we have to wonder whether in power this change of personnel wouldn’t solidify into a starker change in ideology. There is a huge risk that the Tories really do lurch to the right if they get into power again. We have seen the lying, dictatorial style of Johnson without a majority. We would be right to fear that style with all the authority of an unfettered parliamentary majority.

Jon Bigger

Photo: Rwendland, CC BY-SA 4.0