British Politics in 2018: New Year, Old Problems

As a New Year begins, British Politics is finding it impossible to deal with the future as it is consumed with the battles of the past.



One debate that was reignited over the festive period was the role of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, sparked by the announcement that Nick Clegg was to receive a knighthood. Owen Jones wrote a piece typical of the attitude many shared on the left, that Clegg's support for austerity was a chief cause of the Brexit vote. I'm not so sure about this; perhaps with with hindsight it's more true that destroying the reputation of the Lib Dems amongst metropolitan liberal types and students actually paved the way for Corbynism's electoral success (to be fair, Jones does mention this in passing, though does not quite put the argument in those terms).

After Clegg's leadership took them from 50 MPs to less than 10, it's been a slow rebuilding process for the Liberal Democrats. Stories being briefed out of Lib Dem HQ suggest that not all is well, and new-ish leader Vince Cable must be hoping that he can find a way to make the party relevant. A combination of the polarisation in the UK following the Brexit vote, a rubbish voting system and poor strategic choices made by the Lib Dems and UKIP have meant a return to 2-party politics. It's going to be difficult to see any of these parties, as well as the Greens, making much of a breakthrough in the political scene this year.

British Politics is still consumed by the seismic vote nineteen months ago to leave the European Union, which gave a truckload of ammunition to the decades-long feud within the Conservative Party over Europe. In December, the Conservatives lost their first Parliamentary vote on a Brexit issue after pro-Remain MPs rebelled against the government in what was surely a portent of things to come. Almost a year since Theresa May triggered Article 50, there's still no clear consensus in the Cabinet about what the final end-state of Brexit would look like. It seems like there is a general agreement that a free-trade deal will be pursued, but that's like saying that you're going to eat meat for dinner: it still leaves a lot to be decided. May is also hamstrung by the fact that she lost her credibility, authority and majority in last June's election. Despite everything, she is still Prime Minister and I would not be surprised to see her approval ratings rise just because she is still plodding on.

What about the opposition Labour Party, resurgent in the polls with a rejuvenated leader? In a party where many use “Blairite” as a term of abuse, the record of Labour's period in government is viewed as decidedly mixed. However, there are signs that Jeremy Corbyn is taking a more sensible attitude to Tony Blair's legacy than many of his supporters. Last year he praised Labour's record on the NHS and homeless in PMQs exchanges, and in his message for 2018 Blairishly talked of staking out “a new centre ground”. I am hopeful that this year Labour can move on from its obsession with the past. That means that the Labour right stops assuming that the cautious approach which won in 1997 would still work today, and that the Labour left acknowledges the good Labour did in government and stops assuming that Tony Blair is the Antichrist. As a famous Blairite said: “Best when we are boldest, best when we are united, best when we are Labour.”

Labour is currently leading in the polls, and one thing to look out for this year is whether past events halt this rise. Recent protests in Iran have caused the spotlight to fall on the past support of Corbyn and his press secretary for the Iranian regime. Corbyn's past remarks have not proved an obstacle for him in two leadership elections and a general election campaign, so it will be interesting to see if nothing continues to stick to “Teflon Jeremy” as the prospect of a Corbyn Premiership becomes increasingly credible.

The final past events that may shape Labour's fortune in a subsequent election would be if the Conservatives can repeat the successful attacks on Ed Miliband in 2015. In that election the idea of a Labour administration in the SNP's pocket led many to vote Conservative, especially in Con-Lib marginal seats. Given the arrangement the Tories have with the DUP, these attacks may lose some of their force, but it could be a line of attack which the Conservatives use if Labour continue to rise in the polls.

In 2018 Britain had better hope that its politicians stop fighting old battles, as there are plenty of problems to solve right now. Cuts to public services and to wages are starting to bite. Homelessness is becoming a distressingly common problem, millions of working families use food banks and the NHS is in a severe crisis. The continuing squeeze on local council budgets means the chronic underfunding of social care will also only get worse. Steve is right to argue that the Conservatives need a plan to address these issues, but I cannot see this happening whilst the government is so preoccupied with Brexit. More on that in the Friday Fizz tomorrow.