Monday 10 June 2024

What if the Tories Come Third?

Monday was Liberal Democrat manifesto day! Following Ed Davey's well-received video about his being a personal carer for his son, the biggest splash - larger than his Lake Windermere antics - was the party's commitment to pushing more money into health and social care services. This would involve a special minimum wage for care workers two quid above the present £11.44 hourly rate, an additional £20 on carers' allowance, and raising the ceiling of what carers can earn before the state starts clawing it back. Okay, these are not big commitments really but are likely to be better than what Labour offers in its manifesto. Tough choices and all that. Other offerings include a windfall tax on fossil fuels producers, mental health professionals in every school, increases to capital gains tax, and an unwarranted attack on trade unions.

The Lib Dems aren't doing fantastic in the polls, what with Nigel Farage exciting the media pack (plus ├ža change) and the Greens eclipsing the yellow party in a couple of surveys. But they are worth keeping an eye on, and not just because they're positioned to do well out of a Keir Starmer government. There is a chance, a slim chance, they could be the official opposition after 4th July. Can you imagine it? No more Tory psychodrama hogging the headlines. Names like Suella Braverman forgotten. Their racist hobby horses and culture war rubbish no longer have political traction. Starmer will have his agenda, and from the Despatch Box Davey will take him on on the NHS, care, the single market, and other staples of liberal and centrist concerns. This is politics as Ian Dunt's dreams made flesh.

If you believe that's going to happen, I have a bridge to sell you.

Assuming the Lib Dems become HM's opposition, absolutely nothing will change when it comes to the discourse of British politics. This election campaign typifies it. Reform, if they're lucky, can look forward to returning a single MP - most likely Farage himself in Clacton. Yet, despite having a handful of councillors they are getting more coverage than the Greens (800+ councillors) and the Lib Dems combined. You can't put this down to the unique threat Reform poses the Tories. Chances are the Lib Dems will take more votes and seats off them. No, what the election is showing is the institutional predisposition toward the right. And that's not going to disappear simply because the parliamentary Tory party might end up holding its meetings in a phone box.

The Tory press, which to all intents and purposes are as much part of the party as its cadre of MPs, councillors, and the rest, have a sunk investment in the politics they peddle. They are as steadfast in the maintenance of bourgeois class relations, and that will inform their critique of the incoming Labour government. Not because they believe Starmer is going to outlaw landlordism and nationalise sausages. As hyper-class conscious partisans of capital the very idea of the Labour Party worries them. The trade union link, its dependence on supporters who don't have much of a stake in British capitalism, and the recent memory of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership makes them nervous. Despite Starmer's many assurances and the general cast of his project, they are concerned he might raise political expectations with his nebulous promises to fix things and make public services work.

So what? Aren't the press in long-term decline as well? Yes, but they still determine Britain's political conversation. Broadcast journalism and their online content accept them as the gatekeepers of what is and isn't an issue, and for a variety of (usually self-serving) reasons leading politicians except their talking points as legitimate concerns and will respond to them. Hence, in our imagined scenario Davey might press Starmer on the care crisis, but given his acceptance of right wing framing on so many things, the Labour leader has effectively chosen to be held accountable on right wing issues. And because of this, he's going to provide the press with enough hot air to reflate the busted Tory balloon and give them an opening for a partial return.

Even though the Tories suffering their deserved decline and fall, there is still a mass constituency for conservatism in this country. Its continuous erosion is the ultimate root of Tory woe, but for now it remains substantial. Over and over, in briefing and in policy terms, Labour has genuflected in this direction. And even as mass conservatism diminishes to a rump that can never win an election by itself again, the modus operandi of tacking right equalling super clever smart politics will still light up the Starmerist dashboard. As 1997 is the model, and tragedy and farce will befall the incoming government as they imitate Tony Blair's time in office, because he retained political dominance by owning so many traditional Tory (if not Thatcherite) concerns you can expect Starmer and co try the same trick.

Early on in the campaign, Starmer and Rachel Reeves had great fun telling the media that "stability means change". And vice versa. This applies to politics. We might be in store for a massive realignment where the Tories are so reduced that, for the first time since the early 20th century, they might get beaten by the Liberal Party. Or, to be more accurate, its direct successor. But apart from the change it would make to parliamentary arithmetic, we won't see the advent of "sensible" or "grown up" politics. It will still be dominated by scaremongering, racism, beggar-thy-neighbouring. Not a new liberal enlightenment but the usual divisive swill, and for Starmer and friends that will suit them fine.

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Anonymous said...

Agree but with one reservation: one of the big things we should be worried about with an incoming Starmer government is his very obvious authoritarianism. Of course the Lib Dems would be a disappointing opposition in many ways, but surely still better to have them asking questions from the despatch box when Starmer introduces repressive new anti-protest laws (for instance).

Anonymous said...

When are we going to see your thoughts on Starmer's open dare to Corbyn-era Labour voters, to vote Green/WP?