Blithely accepting that Labour’s electoral coalition is sundered and that the next election is unwinnable is an unforgivable act of self-indulgence, argues Tom Railton
A crunching, humiliating U-turn on national insurance contributions, a broken manifesto pledge, and a red-faced chancellor. An awful budget for the government to be sure, but one that may well be remembered for far more consequential reasons than a scuffle over NICs. It is clear the government have been badly bruised, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s incredible failure to land a blow at prime minister’s questions, but they may also have opened the door to a more fatal injury further down the line.
The truth is that last week could have been one of the worst weeks in the recent history of the Labour party, instead it may turn out to be the start of the long road to recovery. In the nightmare scenario, Philip Hammond would have opened his red budget box on Wednesday to reveal a spread of juicy spending pledges. There would have been extra billions for the National Health service, much more for social care and some feelgood tax cuts instead of a mismanaged rise in national insurance. He would have used the fiscal headroom afforded by his lax deficit reduction targets and spent the £26bn or so this allows him. Tories would not have complained, because history has shown they only care about deficit reduction as an excuse to cut things they do not like anyway. Labour’s only response, probably delivered about three days too late, would have been to criticise the tax cuts and call for more spending.
In this scenario, Theresa May would bank the popularity gained from the budget, dash off a letter to Brussels triggering article 50 and appear on the steps of Downing Street to call a general election. The Fixed-Term Parliament Act would be easily overcome, the bursting CCHQ attack dossier would be slotted into a one month news grid, and Britain would embark on the most brutal short campaign in living memory. Labour would be destroyed, losing up to a third of its seats and many of its most talented members of parliament. May would gain a massive majority and a new cohort 50 or so Mayite Tory MPs who could form a praetorian guard within parliament. She would be free from the headache of a tiny Commons majority, and free from being held hostage by the rightwingers in her own party. The next election would be in 2022, giving her time to turn things around even if she gets a bad deal in 2019.
There are a number of reasons May has not pursued this strategy, but almost all of them pale beside the overwhelming logic of the argument in favour. May is right that Britain is a bit sick of elections, but the idea this will significantly damage her at the ballot box is for the birds (Northern Ireland, incidentally, probably is utterly sick of elections but the delusion that Northern Ireland figures at all in No 10 calculations must surely have worn off by now). Nor do I buy the argument that calling an election after promising not to would damage the May brand of steady-as-she-goes politics. She would simply argue that having triggered our exit from the European Union she now needs a mandate for her negotiating position.
No, there is only one good argument for waiting until 2020. It is the argument, satirised in the Daily Mash, that May does not want to ‘waste’ Jeremy Corbyn on a snap election, and would rather use him as a get out of jail free card in 2020 when Brexit is getting messy. This is the gamble the Tories have just made.
If like me the version of events above makes you break out in a cold sweat then you can rest a bit easier today. The big take away from last week’s budget is that this whole scenario is off the table. As former George Osborne advisor Rupert Harrison tweeted, this was not a budget to go to the country on. Instead of a spread of pre-election sweeteners, there was a miscalculated NIC rise that has left a sour taste in Tory mouths. Ironically, the subsequent NIC row within Tory ranks showcases just why May needs an election. Governing with no real majority and no base in a parliamentary party drunk on Brexit optimism is not going to be fun. In fact, there is a real question about whether May is governing at all. But with no obvious window for an early general election, this balancing act is going to be the daily reality for the next three years.
For Labour, the future is now a bit clearer. We will be facing a general election in 2020 after the article 50 window has expired. It is highly likely that May will have returned from Brussels the previous year with something that falls substantially short of what she promised the British people she would achieve, or even with no deal at all. The Tory party, which is barely holding together thanks to a vague ‘plan’ to achieve motherhood and apple pie, will descend into carnage the moment that it becomes obvious that neither will be forthcoming. A government that can barely get through these relatively calm seas without looking flat-footed and incompetent will struggle to hold it together in the gale force winds that are about to be unleashed.
Looking at what awaits in 2020 it quickly becomes obvious that the idea, fashionable on the left in the last few years, that the next election is unwinnable for Labour whoever is leader is total nonsense. In fact, failure to win in these circumstances would be a disaster. Pretending otherwise is an indulgence our country cannot afford.
Nor is it acceptable to hide behind the excuse that Brexit has fundamentally sundered Labour’s electoral coalition. It is simply not true that most people define their politics by how they voted on 23 June and are still stuck in their bunkers. The brilliant polling by BritainThinks published last week exposes the facts and is worth reading in full. While hardcore Brexiteers and equally die-hard Remainers do exist, our country is mainly populated by people who currently simply want to get on with it and get a good deal.
Labour does not need to tie itself in knots over this. We just need to cash in on the high expectations foolishly nurtured by the Tories, set a number of tests for a good deal (good trade access, controlled immigration that does not hurt the economy, more money for the NHS) and wait for May to fail to meet them. The general election should then be fought on the simple message that May is a weak leader who has secured a terrible deal because of extremists in her own party and cannot be trusted to continue in power. This is a message that can span Leave and Remain voters. Delivered by a strong leader who has worked hard to restore credibility, it would likely be a winning one.
Labour does not need to go quietly into the night. We have dodged the bullet of an early election and now have three years to sort ourselves out. Those still making excuses for the current leadership must face the reality that the next election is eminently winnable, it is only the far-left that are handing it to the Tories on a plate. Allowing a terrible government to win a general election after inflicting disaster on the economy would be a truly unforgivable act of self-indulgence. The Tories have just given up a certain landslide general election win and gambled that Labour will not be able to get our house in order by 2020. It is up to us to make sure this goes down as one of the biggest political miscalculations in history.
Tom Railton is a member of Progress. He tweets @TomRailton1
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