Polly Toynbee: Labour goes to war as the Tories close ranks
The party is in freefall, but those facts make no impression on Labour’s new members
Angela Eagle, left, is mounting her challenge to Corbyn’s leadership with the party on a bizarre seesaw: as its membership rises, so its support in the country falls. LEON NEAL,DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
There she stands, the new prime minister , so unassailable that her final opponent melted away . Even her party’s most rabid Brexiters crumpled. Theresa May’s commanding speech not only reassured them that out does mean out and free movement will end, no back-sliding, but in the same breath she plundered the best clothes in the opposition’s wardrobe. Hasta la vista, Labour!
The mighty Tory power-broking machine, so well-oiled and laser-focused, rapidly crushed its unelectables, its populist demagogues and comedic inadequates. How fast they settled on she who is most likely to preserve their hegemony for the foreseeable and unforeseeable future. Thatcher’s regime earned them 18 years. Might the May era give another 10 or more years to the party that has ruled over most of our lifetime?
That shudder of recognition runs down the spines of those 172 Labour MPs trying to remove their leader . Look into the eyes of May to see what serious determination to occupy real power looks like. Here is the natural party of government back in the saddle, despite its own grievous responsibility for the most nation-shattering political catastrophe in modern times.
The old alliance of interests between working-class voters and a metropolitan left may be shattered beyond repair
How do they do it? By keeping just enough in touch with modernity, stealing the other side’s popular tunes as cover for core Tory interests. She who knew her “nasty” party’s downside now reprises David Cameron’s early pitch for office, back in his husky-hugging days. Dress up, borrow and personalise those Labour themes that focus-groups show do chime with the public: change how big business is governed , put employees on boards, rein in obscene pay, make Amazon and Google pay their taxes, an end to “anything goes”, she said. A Tory in the first flush of power can say things that would have a Labour politician minced into sausagemeat.
It is now de rigueur for politicians of every hue to mouth platitudes on inequality. Yes, the poor die early, white working-class boys don’t go to university, black kids are harassed by the police, the private school few are unfairly privileged, mental patients are shamefully neglected and the young will never own homes.
She said it well , but it had all been said before by Cameron – even as his government cut to the bone, stripping 40% of the budget and a million jobs from council services, leaving the NHS on a stretcher, schools desperate for teachers, child poverty rising, disabled people persecuted while social housing is sold off. These enlightened Tories are good at wringing their hands while they tighten the screw.
So where’s the beef? Not a word about the deficit, no hint as to how May’s brand of austerity will look. No word of former contender Stephen Crabb’s promise to borrow £100bn for building and investment, though the government can borrow for less than nothing. Words are empty without funds, but she said nothing. The best clue is her Conservative Home speech in 2013 , a rare policy tour d’horizon where she used the same phrases – “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes, and it doesn’t mean that capitalism is always perfect.” But her economics were bone dry, warning of the “debt crisis”, where “we’ll be trapped in a spiral of debt”, praising George Osborne for acting to “eliminate the deficit”. As Brexit precipitates us into our self-made recession, expect no Keynesian convert.
The political crisis is all on the left, with a total absence of opposition. So outrageously inept is Jeremy Corbyn’s regime that Labour failed to mount a fight last week against the £1,200 charge for employment tribunals, which has seen a 70% fall in claims . Richard Burgon, the new shadow lord chancellor, simply missed its huge significance, and with no whip the government won by an astounding 135. Forget forensic challenges to bad policy or defending austerity’s victims.
Angela Eagle is mounting her challenge to Corbyn’s leadership with the party on a bizarre seesaw: as its membership rises, so its support in the country falls. Labour is seven points lower in its ratings that it has ever been nine months after a new leader has been put in place. ICM puts Labour eight percentage points behind the Tories – before May’s likely bounce. Despite Corbyn’s denials, Labour’s council election results were the worst since 1982, the first time an opposition has had net losses in a non-general election year. No opposition has ever won power without reaching a 20% lead. Corbyn scores “the worst ratings of any opposition leader ever” among swing voters, says Britain Thinks . Nearly a third of Labour supporters who voted Brexit say they will not return.
Related: View in Wallasey: Angela Eagle ‘may be right person, but wrong time’
This is a party in freefall, but those facts make no impression on Labour’s new members. Professor Tim Bale has surveyed them and finds 77% who joined after Corbyn became leader believe he will win the next general election. Denial, delusion, magical thinking, call it what you will, they believe it. Worse, I’ve heard many say winning is shoddy Westminster elite stuff: conviction matters more, say some Trots but mainly ardent believers.
Labour’s turmoil reflects a chronic collapse in the country. The old alliance of interests between working-class voters and a metropolitan left may be shattered beyond repair. The 172 MPs who voted no confidence in Corbyn have little to lose, as they are set to lose anyway. Faced with Eagle’s challenge, today the national executive committee decides if Corbyn must collect 51 nominations, as Neil Kinnock had to when challenged by Tony Benn, or if he gets an automatic place. If he’s denied the chance, what happens to the outraged party members is anyone’s guess. Of course Eagle might beat Corbyn fair and square, but if he wins, he will be challenged again until the party collapses or finds its way back to some hope of power.
Angela Eagle is extraordinarily brave. This isn’t ambition: she doesn’t expect to be prime minister, quite likely not leader either. Instead she will be beaten up by Corbyn’s “kinder, gentler politics”. Clever, experienced, tough, from northern working-class roots, her vote for the invasion of Iraq will be used against her, though we know how Blair terrorised his MPs with false warnings of that 45-minute national danger. In this fractious, jealous party, even support from her own side is grudging – though no one can say who would be better. She stepped up and she deserves support and admiration from any who knows Labour needs saving in its darkest hour. She is a spark of hope, doing what must be done.
Guardian News and Media 2016