‘Socialism for the 21st century’ – this is the promise of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
His re-election this year was met by the right with glee. Mr. Corbyn has expressed support for the abolition of the hugely popular monarchy, nuclear disarmament, and re-nationalisation of the rail and energy industries. He has referred to the terrorist organisations Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’. Put simply, Corbyn sits way outside the mainstream of public opinion: He is a man detached from the views of ordinary voters, detached from Labour’s traditional working-class base, and someone who people simply cannot see as Prime Minister. Accordingly, a recent ICM poll showed Labour polling sixteen points behind the governing Conservatives. The multifaceted nature of the electoral threat to Labour: From the Scottish National Party on the left and the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party to its right, makes victory in 2020 an almost impossible feat for the party.
Conservatives, understandably, are rather pleased with this situation – as it means there is no end in sight for their power. Such a scenario has precedence: The Tories enjoyed similar electoral immunity through much of the 1980s when, under the leadership of radical leftist Michael Foot, the Labour Party made itself unelectable and spent nearly two decades outside of government. Back then, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher seized this opportunity and drove forwards a radical agenda of privatisation, tax cuts, thwarting the unions, and monetarist economic policy; rolling back the frontiers of the state and fundamentally altering political orthodoxy both in Britain and abroad.
It was my sincere hope that, with a once more discordant left and the adrenalin shot of victory in the EU referendum and a popular new Prime Minister, a second Thatcherite age would be heralded and the party of low taxes, the small state, and individual liberty would once again be free to implement its ideology. I and many other libertarians believed that with David Cameron off the scene and the European Question answered with the Brexit vote – in a rebuke to an overbearing state and a vindication of the ideas of free-marketeers like Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell – the right would return in earnest and would be unabashed and unafraid in implementing its ideas. We could not have been more wrong.
Theresa May, a supporter of the losing ‘remain’ side in the EU referendum, was not an obvious choice for Prime Minister given the circumstances. Her insistence on a policy of ‘industrial strategy’, and talk of caps on executive pay, signalled not just a continuation of the economic interventionism of the Cameron-Osborne era, but an emboldening of it. Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s Autumn Statement was no better on this front: With tax hikes, a rise in the already high minimum wage, and the abandonment of plans to eliminate Britain’s enormous budget deficit. Away from economics, the government has also managed to successfully pass the Investigatory Powers Bill – popularly known as the ‘Snoopers Charter’ – which, among other gross breaches of civil liberties and privacy rights, requires that companies store records of websites visited by every citizen for twelve months. And all this from the alleged party of free markets and liberty.
And then there’s Brexit.
Having not been a supporter of the project herself, one wonders at times if Theresa May gets her conception of leaving the EU more from the misguided caricatures devised by left-wing politicians and media outlets like The Guardian than from its ideological fathers in her own party: She has not indicated support for abolishing tariffs or deregulating, bizarrely opting to take a protectionist route to carrying out a libertarian project. She has signalled that rather than end the EU’s unsustainable subsidisation of agriculture, among other things, she will simply repatriate such spending to the UK exchequer. On immigration, rather than open Britain to the best and brightest from the world as leaving the EU’s freedom of movement system would allow us to do, she seems to have interpreted a widespread desire for greater control over numbers as one for slashing of numbers at any cost – choosing, for example, to continue the ludicrous policy of including international student numbers in net migration figures.
There is little indication that this is what the British public wants. Far from the Tories’ consistent poll leads showing a public enthralled with the Conservative government, they show one terrified by the prospect of a Labour government under Corbyn, with the Conservatives not seen merely as the best of a bad bunch but as the only party even capable of governance. It is a weak left, one so far behind in the polls and so far away from electoral victory that they are unable to place even the slightest ounce of influence on the government, that is allowing the Conservatives to slump into this complacent ideological rut. With no chance of losing the next election, any democratic pressure on the government is off. At this stage, they could probably ban ‘The Great British Bake Off’ and still be sure of victory in 2020.
As glorious as the idea of a weak Labour Party might once have seemed to the right, it has done nothing to advance our ideas. The total lack of opposition has strengthened a complacent establishment. There’s no need to think big. There’s no need to be radical. There’s no need to do anything much differently to what Cameron, or Brown, or Blair did. At the centre of government are politicians whose natural inclination is towards caution, risk aversion and technocracy. Any advocate of capitalism and free markets knows that it is risk which drives innovation and radicalism. Without the former, there is no impetus for the latter. If a stunning referendum victory and a record poll lead isn’t enough to allow the right to implement its agenda, then what is? If ever there was time for change and for dynamism, it is now. But unless Labour manages to sort itself out and properly take up its role as the opposition, the ideological fault-lines in British politics will simply dissipate, and complacency will leave us with a damp squib of a Conservative government and a damn squib of a Brexit.
* Lewis D. Nicholas is a student of management at the University of Lancaster.