Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word: A stasis caused by division

British politics remains suspended in animation: Leave voters sticking with the Tories, while Remain voters cling to Labour in the hope that the party will provide a lifeboat for a soft Brexit, writes Last Word columnist Robert Philpot

If the most remarkable political event of the first six months of the year was Theresa May’s humiliation at the general election, the second half of the year has seen a less commented upon, but potentially equally significant, phenomenon: Labour’s seeming inability to capitalise on the Tories’ difficulties in the polls.

Look at the current political landscape. Britain is led by a deeply unpopular prime minister, who is too weak to sack a foreign secretary who seems hell-bent on undermining her. The government is riven by open divisions on the most important issue facing the country; has ripped up almost the entire manifesto it fought the general election on; and is propped up in parliament by an arrangement with the Democratic Unionist party so flimsy that it has to order its members of parliament to stay away from some votes so it can implausibly claim it did not lose them.

And yet, look too at the latest opinion polls. In the wake of a disastrous Tory party conference, October’s Guardian/ICM poll shows Labour and the Conservatives tied. Rarely since the general election have any polls shown Labour more than a two or three points ahead of the Tories.

This stasis represents the ongoing deep division in the country over Brexit. As new research by the campaign group Best for Britain shows, the upset general election result largely stemmed from tactical voting by ‘Remain’ voters. It reveals how Labour’s strongest performances came about where it was seen as the clear choice for those who voted against Britain leaving the European Union at the referendum. This was boosted by the decision of a small, but crucial, number of 2015 Tory voters who backed Remain to switch to Labour in June, as well as the decision of some ‘Leave’ voters to simply sit the general election out.

In the wake of the general election, British politics remains suspended in animation: Leave voters sticking with the Tories, while Remain voters cling to Labour in the hope that the party will provide Britain a lifeboat for a soft Brexit. But that lifeboat is one that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – who deep down continue to regard the single market as a neoliberal capitalists’ club – cannot decide if they want to launch. The time for them to choose is fast running out. If they stand back and continue to allow the Tory right to steer Britain towards the rocks of a hard Brexit, the political landscape could suddenly look very different, and the odds of Corbyn making it to Downing Street will lengthen once again.

A woman’s work

This week saw the 35th anniversary of the by-election which brought Harriet Harman into parliament. Few will have been surprised that it was Labour’s former deputy leader who was first on her feet on the floor of the Commons on Monday declaring that nobody in parliament should have to work in ‘a toxic atmosphere of sleazy, sexist or homophobic banter’. Harman has spent over three decades fighting for equality, challenging discrimination and trying to change the boorish culture which afflicts too much of British politics. Had some of her male colleagues ridiculed her less and listened to her sooner, parliament might have avoided the wave of sexual harassment allegations that now threaten to engulf it and can only further undermine confidence in British democracy.

Yes, that Kennedy. No, not that Sanders

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is well cast as the public face of the Donald Trump White House. In just two days this week she suggested that ‘JFK’ and ‘Kennedy’ were two different people; attempted to explain the administration’s tax policy using a 2011 viral email; and could not quite bring herself to condemn slavery (she did not want to ‘relitigate the Civil War’, she helpfully declared).

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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