The Labour Party’s current internal focus provides an important opportunity for the Conservatives
The drama of the Labour leadership election, with the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn from obscure backbencher to leading contender in the race, is obsessing both the media and the political classes. Labour’s contest is an important one. The result of what has turned out to be a battle for the soul of Labour will have profound consequences for the future of the party and politics in the UK. The unavoidable fact is that the Labour Party’s current internal focus provides an important opportunity for the Conservatives to shape the political narrative, temporarily freed from the challenge of an effective opposition.
The question is what should the Conservative Party do with this opportunity, and how should it be used to shape the battleground on which the Government and Opposition will fight when normal politics begins.
In politics narratives are powerful. The Conservative Party’s ability to develop the analogy of the last Labour Government “maxing out the nation’s credit card” in the early years defined their economic narrative over the last parliament. As a number of Labour figures have accepted this narrative, it has seeped into the public’s consciousness and has left the Labour Party on the back foot, struggling to respond.
Since the General Election, the Conservative Government has managed to announce a number of radical policies which were not outlined before the election, such as cuts to tax credits, or an extension in the freeze in child benefit. They have also abandoned or delayed a significant number of other things that were promised, such as social care cap, a Government support for volunteering and rail investment in the north of England. However, the reaction from the Labour Party has been muted and mostly ignored. One Conservative MP has joked that the chaos in the Labour Party meant that that Conservatives could “strap babies to foxes and then tie them up with badgers, shoot them, and Labour wouldn’t know how to oppose it”.
There are many Conservative voices who believe that whatever the final result of the Labour leadership election, the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn and his radical left wing policies will haunt the Labour Party for years to come, and this has already pushed Labour out of the race for the 2020 election. Some argue that a bitterly divided Labour Party means the Conservatives simply can focus on implementing more traditional Conservative policies and seek to shift the UK’s political centre ground to the right.
Other Conservatives recognise that, despite recent commentary from leading members of both the Labour and the Conservative Party that the perception of the Labour Party as anti-business and lacking a credible leader meant that it was bound to lose in May’s General Election, it didn’t always feel like that. In the wake of George Osborne’s ‘Omnishambles’ budget in 2012, or in 2013 when Labour had just launched its energy price freeze promise, Labour appeared to be on a strong footing and few Conservatives would have predicted a clear victory. Despite the Conservatives’ advances in the last parliament, it faces a significant number of its own weaknesses which must be dealt with if the party is going to be able to use a leftwards shift from the Labour Party to dominate the centre ground and cement its electoral position in 2020.
One of these weaknesses is the perception that it is the party of the rich. As the commentator Isabel Hardman has highlighted polls suggest that the perception that the Conservative Party as the party of the rich has actually increased over the last five years from 83 per cent to 88 per cent of voters.
George Osborne, the party’s leading strategist in addition to his role as Chancellor, has sought to tackle this perception by brazenly adopting many of the ideas which were proposed by Ed Miliband, from a living wage to clamp downs on energy companies. But there is still more to be done if the Conservative Party is going to achieve its aim of being seen as the party that represents the ‘workers of Britain’.
A reputation for economic competence was key to the party’s electoral success, but this leaves it vulnerable to any reverse in the currently positive economic news. Additionally, Conservatives risk their own period of internal focus and division both from the impending EU referendum and the expectation that David Cameron will fulfil his promise of stepping down before the next election, requiring the Conservative Party to elect a replacement leader. Most commentators have dismissed the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn winning the next General Election, Tony Blair’s warning that the party risks annihilation in the event of a Corbyn victory is just one of the interventions from leading Labour figures warning their fellow party members of the dangers of a radical shift to the left. Nevertheless, the rise of the Corbyn wing of the Labour party will have a profound effect on British politics, whoever wins the Labour leadership.
In the same way that UKIP was able to harry the mainstream parties and shift the debate (especially on immigration and the EU) rightwards, the emboldened and expanded Corbynite wing of the Labour Party could have the same influence, moving the debate to the left on a range of issues. Even if a radical left wing platform is likely to fail to win the support of the majority of the British public at a General Election, in the same way as some of UKIP’s populist right wing politics captured the public’s imagination, many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are quite popular. As well as influencing the debate on issues such as welfare, Corbynism will make it less likely that the Government will win parliamentary support for airstrikes on ISIS to be extended to Syria, and left wing Euroscepticism could have a profound effect on the outcome of the EU referendum.
Political history has shown that electorally successful parties are those who are able to reach out from their base of support and identify themselves with the interest of nonaligned centrist voters. The 2020 general election is still a long time away and it is too early to call it for either party.
Despite the Conservative’s surprise electoral success, the Party Chairman, Lord Feldman, has launched a significant review of the functioning of the party. As well as looking at the party machinery, there is an opportunity to make victory more likely by taking advantage of the Labour Party’s current woes to position itself at the centre ground of British politics. Whether the party is able to make this shift remains to be seen. What is clear is that the benign combination of a political honeymoon and disarray in the main opposition party won’t last for long and normal political combat is likely to recommence soon.