We are told these days to expect a ‘new normal’: different ways of living, working, travelling and shopping once the Covid-19 crisis is over. Maybe politics, too. Here is my ‘new normal’ advice to the three main Britain-wide parties – with absolutely no guarantee that, if they do as I say, they won’t fall flat on their faces.
For once, be bold.
Most of the time, voters are cautious. They prefer to protect what they have than to risk sudden change.
One of the reasons for Labour’s massive landslide in 1997 was that Tony Blair promised not to undo everything the Conservatives had done during the previous 18 years.
Taxes would not go up. The emblematic policies of the Thatcher era – council house, new trade union laws, privatisation – would not be repealed. Blair promised nothing that would distract from his central charge that the Tories were tired, sleazy and incompetent. Middle England agreed, and voted Labour.
Roughly once in a generation, though, radicalism wins elections. This was true in 1945, when Labour promised homes, jobs, healthcare and social insurance for all, following the hardships of the war years; and in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher captured the public mood that decisive action was needed to reduce taxes, tackle the trade unions and curb the power of the state.
The current crisis looks like providing another such moment. A YouGov poll for the New Economics Foundation finds that as many as 31% want “big changes” in the way the economy is run.
In the past fortnight, I have had three separate discussions with people dissecting focus group exercises in different parts of Britain. All have told the same story. Issues that used to provoke no more than a passionate minority have broken through to the wider electorate: caring for the elderly and those with mental health problems; fighting climate change; stopping Cummings-style hypocrisy of those with power; above all, the need for fairness, not least for people doing vital jobs for terrible wages.
The next election may still be four years away, but it is likely to be won by the party that voters back to tackle these concerns, as well as boost living standards.
Only connect (with Europe and the world).
The current crisis shows that many of our problems have global roots and need global solutions. “Work together” makes more sense than “go it alone”. This has obvious relevance to Brexit. A modest but stable majority now thinks we were wrong to leave the EU and, given a new referendum, would vote to stay in.
However, the issue now is what kind of relationship to have with the EU once the transition period ends in December. Polling for the Best for Britain campaign shows that most voters, including those who voted Leave four years ago, think close trading links across the Channel matter far more than new deals with the United States – or anywhere else.
What matters most, though, is what happens to our economy next year. Here are three possibilities. One, a deal allows trade to flow with no tariffs or delays; two, there is no deal, trading becomes harder and more expensive, and Britain’s economy suffers; three, there is no deal, but we show these foreigners what for, and sail into a glorious, independent future.
That final prospect has the greatest political appeal to Johnson. It would maintain his support both among the electorate and the hardline Brexiteers on his backbenches. But what if, as almost every serious economist and business leader believes, a no-deal outcome to the current talks damages jobs, investment and living standards? That’s the second of the three prospects listed above. Worse for Johnson, research by the Social Market Foundation, a think tank unsullied by left-wing passions or manic Europhilia, finds that some of the worst hit areas would be the ‘red wall’ constituencies in the north and Midlands that the Tories gained six months ago.
That leaves option one: a free trade deal with the EU. But that would require Johnson to keep the UK aligned to Europe’s ‘level playing field’ rules on state aid, workers’ rights, data protection and the environment. This would infuriate those hardline backbenchers, who wanted to “get Brexit done” in order to cast aside the shackles of EU regulations.
Left to himself, Johnson might well defy these Brexiteers and embrace the kind of internationalism that the Covid-19 crisis seems to demand. But how would the public respond to the sight of Conservative divisions over Europe erupting again? This leads us to…
Beware the mirage of party unity.
Voters are said to dislike divided parties. It’s half true: a party at war with itself is seldom an attractive sight. The problem is that divisions almost always reflect genuine differences of opinion – say, over Europe, or ideology, or nuclear weapons, or social reform. The choice party leaders have is not whether to ‘allow’ divisions but how to deal with them when they arise.
The temptation is to strive for a party unity that papers over the cracks. Within the Conservative Party, David Cameron tried this before the Brexit referendum – and Theresa May afterwards. Much good did it do them.
Neil Kinnock showed what to do. Faced with the unholy trinity of Militant, Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill in the mid-1980s, he took them on and defeated them. Few signs of a divided party are more vivid than prominent members walking out during a leader’s conference speech.
Kinnock faced this in Bournemouth in 1985 – and his poll rating shot up. Until her final few months, Thatcher also prospered by winning rather than avoiding internal party battles.
Keir Starmer has learned this lesson well. In getting rid of most of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies from the shadow cabinet and party machine – most recently sacking Rebecca Long Bailey as shadow education secretary – he has rightly ignored calls for a spurious unity.
To be sure, any party needs some element of internal compromise. But calls for ‘unity’ tend to be loudest when the best advice to a leader is to stand firm and fight.
That applies to Johnson and Brexit: he may need to take on his hardliners. But if he does, he must win.
However, when leaders get it badly wrong…
Remember that disloyalty can be the key to success.
Three Conservative leaders have been deposed by their party in the past 30 years. Twice, regicide (of Thatcher and May) led to electoral success. On the third occasion (Iain Duncan Smith) the party at least clawed back some ground at the following election.
Johnson is now in a precarious position. Just two months ago, he enjoyed a 24-point lead when voters were asked who would make the best prime minister. In the latest Opinium/Observer poll, Starmer has now overtaken him. The only prime minister to repel so many voters so fast was May in her catastrophic election campaign three years ago.
If Johnson’s ratings don’t improve, and especially if Brexit works out badly, he might be the fourth Tory leader in a generation to be shown the door by his own colleagues.
(Labour has yet to learn how to do these things. In June 2016, when Corbyn lost the confidence of most of his MPs and shadow cabinet, he managed to cling on. Two elections later, his party crashed to its worst defeat since 1935.)
Draw a line under the past.
Throughout the 1980s, the Tories reminded voters at every election of the “winter of discontent” in 1979, when public sectors strikes caused Labour to be ejected from office. Only when Tony Blair, who was not an MP until 1983, became party leader did archive film of uncollected rubbish piling up in the streets lose its impact.
The Liberal Democrats have the most urgent need to learn this lesson. With just 6% in the latest Opinium survey, they have lost half the already disappointing 12% they scored six months ago. In their current leadership election, the two front-runners are Ed Davey, who was a (rather good) energy secretary in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, and Layla Moran, who was first elected to parliament in 2017. Who to choose? My advice: check out the interview that Jo Swinson gave to Andrew Neil six months ago.
Time and again he asked the party’s then leader to reconcile her progressive beliefs with her votes for welfare cuts as a minister in the coalition government. Time and again she couldn’t. And then there was the broken promise fiasco of student fees.
These days the Lib Dems are struggling to make an impact. Party members might usefully ask themselves whether their new leader should be the one with the ‘coalition’ tag round their neck, or, as we enter an era of ‘new normal’ politics, the one who offers a fresh start.
This commentary first appeared in the New European https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/politics-is-enetering-a-new-normal-this-is-how-parties-must-adapt-1-6727054