When Tony Blair was selling out the Labour Party by introducing a minimum wage, paid holiday leave and free nursery education, the hard left reckoned it had his measure. Semi-Trots and leftover Bennites, since decamped to one of the many exciting acronyms British Leninism has to offer, filled monochrome magazines and academish journals with tracts denouncing Blair as a Tory, a Thatcherite and both a neoliberal and a neocon. The charge sheet was echoed with righteous indignation by proud purists on the backbenches and in the columns of the Guardian and the Independent. New Labour was so far to the right it was indistinguishable from the Conservatives. What was the point, they asked, of a Labour Party that simply aped the policies of its opponents?
Pointing out that Labour was accruing a record any social democrat could be proud of was pointless. The wealth redistributed, the money invested, the poverty lessened – first they denied it, then they dismissed it, then they cried ‘Iraq’. If they were certain of anything – and they were certain of everything – it was that Labour would be distinctively Labour if ever they got control.
Alas, politics. Having seized the commanding heights of the party, the idealists have quickly learned to stop worrying and love the centre ground. Corbyn Labour backs a hard Brexit, including withdrawal from the single market and, depending on which Shadow Cabinet member you ask, the customs union. Indeed, the Labour leader claims ‘the single market is dependent on membership of the EU’, a factoid brought to you in association with double decker buses and the number £350m. He describes EU immigration as a ‘wholesale importation’ of central Europeans ‘in order to destroy conditions’ in the workplace.
Labour’s June manifesto committed to carrying out £7bn of George Osborne’s welfare cuts and, despite Corbyn’s storied opposition to nuclear weapons, pledged to renew the UK’s independent deterrent. Civil liberties champion Corbyn urges higher spending on law and order, demands more police on the streets, and now says officers can shoot to kill terrorists (a U-turn made easier by no longer having as much free time to invite them to the House of Commons).
Labour’s top-ticket policies are geared towards Middle Britain. A free university education for the children of doctors and lawyers paid for out of the taxes of binmen and cleaners. In Scotland, where this policy has been tested, the disadvantaged are four times less likely to make it to university than the well-off.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, it is Labour and not the Tories who grasp the link between housing and aspiration. The election manifesto eschewed red meat in favour of purple prose which could have been lifted from a Blair-era pledge card – ‘Labour will back first-time buyers to buy that special first home’. Only half of the party’s promised one million new homes would be council or housing association units and there would be ‘low-cost homes reserved for first-time buyers’. Private renters would get extended tenancies, a ban on agency fees and an inflation cap on rent hikes.
Corbyn has learned the lesson of Tony Blair’s greatest political achievement: Labour succeeds by making the Tories redundant. In slowly remaking Labour as a patriotic populist party, Corbyn is providing natural Tory voters with an alternative at the ballot box. If you want a clean break from the EU, a more restrictive immigration policy, and benefits cut while your offspring’s tuition is covered, why not vote Labour instead? It’s true that Corbyn is fond of higher taxes but this may no longer be the barrier it once was. A generation is coming of age that earns less than its parents did; higher taxes are more appealing if you never expect to pay them.
Ruth Davidson’s recent essay on tackling these problems stood out as much for its rarity as for its analysis. Few in the Conservative Party have seemed aware of the hard yards that lie ahead and fewer still have voiced any ideas about getting through them. The Tories have never been keen on ideas – they sound too much like ideology. Their USP is managerial competence but that has been tarnished by the wheatfield nakba of 8 June and the decision to conduct Cabinet meetings on the front page of The Sun. It might yet be shot to pieces in the Brexit negotiations, where the task of disentangling from four decades of shared law, practice and markets could be made all the more herculean by ministerial mediocrity and Brussels vindictiveness. Voters after a safe pair of hands may look to the handlebars of a Bolshie-red Raleigh Airlite 300.
The Corbynite takeover poses ethical quandaries for centrists within Labour, especially pro-Europeans, immigration liberals and opponents of anti-Semitism. But Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge is no longer to his own party; he has won that already. The threat he presents is to the Conservatives, whom he is outflanking with a pitch to their natural voters that even Tony Blair wouldn’t have dared. This forces those on the Right to confront a once implausible but now all-too-thinkable question. With a Labour party like this, who needs the Tories?