With the Left withering, whither the Right?
It’s becoming clear that the result of the general election before last was a waypoint in the nation’s political evolution. If the 2010 result seemed little more at the time than the sweeping away of the unsightly rump of a by then discredited period of Labour government, the 2015 result has crystalised the change in voting preferences.
And it’s not just the recent result itself that is remarkable, it’s the trouncing of the pollsters and pundits who completely lost the ability to read the hidden runes of public opinion. The Conservative victory is no ringing endorsement of David Cameron but demonstrates instead (leaving Scotland aside as a special and possibly incomprehensible case) that the electorate certainly could not envisage Ed Miliband as prime minister, but more importantly that a huge pool of voters are heartily fed up with the progressive metropolitan agenda and have rebelled against it.
The progressive ‘envelope’ has been pushed and extended to such a degree that the gamut of things that are unsayable now includes the intention to cast a vote for the Tories, and so, obedient to the current dispensation, the public remained silent till they reached the ballot box. Meanwhile Ukip, who hoovered up almost 4 million votes, was openly ridiculed when it wasn’t being demonised.
Today, the opening manoeuvres around the Labour leadership elections are almost too painful to watch: it’s a danse macabre of has-beens chanting the same old mantra, always with an eye to what union baron Len McCluskey wants to pay for. One of these contenders will win the leadership but none will win a mandate in 2020. The ones who might have given the Left a proper make-over, Chuka Umunna or Tristram Hunt, are sensibly keeping their powder dry for a leadership election after this one.
It follows that all the running remains to be made by the right of centre which, for David Cameron, will mean repositioning his party from where it is now, somewhere to the left of centre, to a point that is recognisably more economically or socially conservative or even – praise be – both of these things. This, in turn, will mean abandoning the visionless managerialism that he has so comfortably taken on from the Blair years.
True, it will require rather more energy than he has shown so far and it may need him to row back on some of the mischief of the last five years, like overseas aid expenditure, fixed term parliaments and even gay marriage (to the extent that he must recognise that for some this is a matter of religious conviction rather than just a civil arrangement).
He may also tackle issues which he has thus far neglected – the quangos that still thrive, the fake charities that are still the fiefdoms of the Left – or been unable to address: the boundary commission needs to get down to work. If he finds a few shreds of conservative fibre in his backbone, he will also aim to reduce the encroachment of the State on the life of the individual.
But his overriding task will be to conduct negotiations with Jean-Claude Juncker and the other EU heads of government to secure a fundamental restructuring of the Union or at the very least a renegotiation of Britain’s role within it that can be put before the people in a referendum in two years’ time.
This is the Mission Impossible that may cause Mr Cameron’s administration to self-destruct. No other member state actively wants to see Britain leave the EU. But there will be little support from our partners for the meaningful concessions that the UK will have to secure for the referendum to result in favour of continued UK membership.
And if the last election result has shown us nothing else, it has shown that voters can tell a fudge and a stitch-up when they see one, so a sleight of hand, however charmingly executed, probably won’t wash.
And just in case Mr Cameron tries to soft-soap the public into accepting a pig in a poke, Ukip will be there to throw brickbats and call foul.
By 2017 Ukip’s recent problems will probably be a thing of the past and if it is ever to reach some kind of maturity, it will have a visible and articulate top team and be less of a one-man band. Red Ukip needs to be consigned to the dustbin for this to be possible and time could usefully be spent sooner rather than later to study what it was that led to Margaret Thatcher’s appeal across social and geographic strata. The Lib Dem approach of playing a medley of tunes to suit a local audience will no longer play.
Ukip’s strength, thus far, has often lain in its willingness to articulate what other parties have timorously skirted around or positively shunned. In its election manifesto, Ukip followed what they like to lump together as LibLabCon in promising more money for the NHS. The NHS is a mess, everyone knows it’s a mess and everyone knows that the sure-fire way of ensuring no improvement to a mess is to give this insatiable monster more money on top of the huge amount it already devours. Ukip needs to avoid falling into the trap of admiring the emperor’s new clothes for the sake of expediency if it wants to continue “telling it like it is”.
The next few years will offer a bit of competition between thinkers on the right of centre in British politics and about time too. There will be little to be heard from the indigenous Left in England, while the SNP in Westminster and on their own turf will provide a continuous reminder of how baleful their ideology could be. What might emerge from this process is a clearer set of ideas that could make the country a brighter place with a rosier future and a looser but constructive relationship with the outside world.