THE MIDDLE ground is crumbling, eaten away by polarised politics, with some surprising results, writes Peter Jones
Even discounting the minority of Tories and Trots who paid £3 to vote in Labour’s leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn still won over a majority of Labour members and supporters. Could he do the same with the electorate? It’s possible, for these are unpredictable political times, but it is also possible he might never win power and yet still profoundly affect the course of history.
Let’s remember that Scottish independence was supposed to be a predictable impossibility - long-term trends showed it had roughly between 30-35 per cent support. But a year ago, the Yes campaign won 45 per cent on a record turn-out. Then there was May’s general election and the previously unthinkable Labour wipe-out and an SNP near-clean sweep.
Now, despite the total collapse of the SNP’s oil-based economic case for independence, backing for the political break-up of the UK remains at roughly the same levels as last September.
So even though I find the prospect of Mr Corbyn becoming prime minister unlikely, I have to concede it is not impossible. Unlikely, because he is breaking nearly every political rule in the book, but possible because that’s exactly what many, perhaps even most, voters seem to want – the rulebook to be torn up.
After all, the rulebook gave us the financial crisis, then the deepest recession most of us have known, and then miserable austerity. Even worse, it has given us an elite rich who seem to be immune to all this; they might have lost a few million, but they still have millions left. Please, I hear a million voices saying, can I have that suffering?
This anti-austerity, anti-establishment mood is the window of opportunity through which Mr Corbyn has climbed, albeit somewhat after the SNP did. Britain is not unique in this. The same has happened in Europe and America, from which not just leftist parties in Greece and Spain have gained, but also rightist parties in France and Germany, as indeed did Ukip in Britain.
The point is, the political centre ground – inhabited by moderate, slightly liberal and mildly progressive, tolerant people – has shrunk. Failing to recognise this is the mistake made by the Blairites in Labour’s ranks. The centre ground, if that terminology is still valid, is not the big battleground it was in the good economic times. It may now even be a smaller space than what lies either side of the centre. The bad times have encouraged extreme opinion and suppressed moderation because to be moderate is seen as, unfairly, opting out and shying away from what are said to be the real choices.
Thus debates over immigration are becoming polarised. I thought Mr Corbyn’s attendance, after his victory, at a pro-immigration rally in favour of Britain taking in refugees was extraordinary, not because he attended it because it’s the kind of cause he has always supported, but because it was taking place at all. That liberal-minded people felt the need to publicly demonstrate in favour of a liberal cause speaks volumes about their fears that liberal opinion and policies are under threat.
This polarising phenomenon is happening right across the spectrum of political debate. Tax? Either you tax the rich and high earners to the hilt to end austerity, or you don’t tax them at all so they create more wealth, and austerity ends that way. The health service? Either it is a state service delivered entirely by taxpayer-funded public employees, or it is privatised. Business? Either it is selfish, seeking only to bloat bosses’ pay and avoid paying tax, or it is invisibly guiding the economy to a better place and should be left alone and untaxed.
This naturally leads on to changes in the policy choices that politicians offer. Mr Corbyn’s election will bring nationalisation – specifically the banks, the major utilities, and the railways – back on to the political agenda. No matter that it will cost a bank bail-out type fortune, or that the evidence shows that the services involved are more efficiently delivered in the private sector, nationalisation is going to be hotly debated.
The Conservatives believe this is so much of a gift horse, guaranteeing them victory at the 2020 general election, that they are not bothering to look it in the mouth. If they did, they might find it has teeth that could bite them.
A few have spotted this. I was interested to read a Conservative commentator yesterday, subscribing to the Corbyn-guarantees-decade-in-power view, but warning his party it is based on the changed public mood I have identified and that therefore it needs to change tack, to “find a way of getting developers to build cheaper homes; to re-link chief executives’ pay to company performance; to reduce the cost of financial services to the poor; and to end the regulations that help big business at the expense of small start-ups”.
It’s a modest agenda, a fleabite in comparison to the monster munch the mild-mannered Mr Corbyn intends, but still a sign of the winds of demanded change his election represents and that show little sign of abating.
My guess is that they will have died down by 2020, when Mr Corbyn will be bidding to be prime minister at the age of 71 (remember what happened to the capable, but old, Menzies Campbell), when the economy should be firmly on growth track and austerity a memory. But in the meantime, the political road ahead is full of rocks and potholes. Scotland elects its government next May and while Mr Corbyn may dent the SNP’s majority, my guess is that the well-honed SNP machine will be more robust than his Scottish supporters expect.
Then there is the EU in-out referendum. David Cameron is aiming to reform the basis of Britain’s EU membership and then win an “in” vote. But the reforms Mr Corbyn wants are certainly not Mr Cameron’s and he has hinted he may support an “out” vote which could tilt the balance towards Britain quitting the EU.
If that happened, it could trigger another indyref which a pro-EU Yes could win. Mr Corbyn may never see the inside of No 10 Downing Street, but he could have more influence on British destiny than many prime ministers.