It might look like Boris Johnson’s Conservatives would win any general election held soon, but Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour could pull of a surprise – as they did in 2017, writes Joyce McMillan.
September 2019; and the British media are in the grip of general election fever. Whether or not Britain leaves the EU on 31 October – and whether we leave with or without a deal – the assumption is that Boris Johnson will want, before long, to seek his own electoral mandate; cue weeks of rash and unseemly speculation, and the kind of incident that took place on Wednesday, when a London hospital visit by the Prime Minister, and a predictable challenge by the angry father of a sick child, triggered a bitter media row that seems set to run for days.
So when the respected polling organisation YouGov yesterday published a survey of voting intentions that placed the Conservatives on 32 per cent, Labour on 21 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats on 23 per cent, it acted like a spoonful of baking soda stirred into an already volatile political mix, with Labour Blairites – led by Tony Blair himself – fizzing and popping about how Jeremy Corbyn’s prevarication on Brexit has destroyed the party’s electoral chances, and the media narrative moving briskly towards the idea that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is dead in the electoral water, that the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson is now the de facto leader of Britain’s Remain voters, and that in any forthcoming election, the Conservatives under Boris Johnson cannot lose.
Some of which is beginning to seem just a shade familiar; for although political memories are short, and apparently getting shorter, some of us can still remember the moment in 2017 when Theresa May called a snap general election in the firm conviction that the main Labour opposition was hopelessly weak, only to find that during the six-week campaign, a 20 per cent Tory poll lead over Labour dwindled to 2.4 per cent, leaving the Conservatives without an overall majority.
It’s clear that public opinion is far more volatile than it used to be, in the days of strong collective party loyalty; and in fact, in the half-dozen reputable UK opinion polls published in the last fortnight, support for the Tories ranges from 38 down to 29 per cent, support for Labour is anywhere between 28 and 21 per cent, and the gap between them is anywhere from one (ComRes) to 14 (Kantar) per cent.
Everything, in other words, remains to be played for, in any imminent UK general election. That Jeremy Corbyn has made a mess of the Brexit issue is not in dispute, and he will certainly lose votes to the Liberal Democrats because of that failure. Come a general election campaign, though, two things will happen.
First, as in 2017, the broadcast media will be forced by law to give more even-handed coverage to the Government and to opposition parties, allowing Jeremy Corbyn and his formidable Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, to make their case to the British public at greater length than usual.
And secondly, the political focus will inevitably broaden to include not only Brexit, but a much wider range of issues, from the future of employment and the fate of our public services to the climate crisis. Of course, all three main UK parties will claim to have policies to deal with those problems.
Yet it strikes me that in a three-way debate between the Chancellor Sajid Javid, the Lib Dem spokesman Ed Davey, and Labour’s John McDonnell, McDonnell has every chance of seeming better prepared, more coherent in his overall vision, and far more adept in argument, than either of his opponents. In particular, his embrace of the idea of a Green New Deal offers something that is available from no other major UK party; a vision of the future that combines strong measures to tackle the climate crisis with a prospect of a transformed economy, and new jobs that will enhance the lives of ordinary workers and their families, rather than subjecting them to ever-increasing levels of insecurity and stress. Now of course, all of these arguments will, and should, be rigorously examined during an election campaign; and they will be dismissed as left-wing pie-in-the-sky by Labour’s opponents. Yet it seems to me that amid all the frenetic Brexit babble of the Westminster bubble, many parties and politicians now risk being wrong-footed by major shifts in public opinion and sentiment taking place beneath the surface.
Today and next Friday, across the planet, unprecedented numbers of young people will be on climate strike, demanding the kind of radical government action that might give them back the future which current economic and energy systems seem set to destroy. Their parents and other adults are beginning to listen to their voices; and according to a poll published this week, a majority of voters across Europe and North America now see the climate crisis as the most important issue facing them.
We are at the kind of turning-point, in other words, where political parties need to move with the times, or risk extinction. After a decade of post-crash austerity, and three decades of wasted time in the climate battle, this election could mark a serious reckoning for the Tories, whose attempt to combine radical free-market economics with retro nationalism now seems increasingly out of time, so far as voters under 50 are concerned; and it could also present challenges for the SNP, a party now inevitably carrying the scars of 12 years in Government during a period of painful austerity, and famous both for its ability to say all the right things about climate change, and for its extreme caution in the face of powerful economic interests when asked to do anything truly radical about it.
The likelihood remains, of course, that the Tories will win any election held soon, and that following the unforgivable Brexit shambles at Westminster, the SNP will do well in Scotland.
At this moment in British and world history, though, a general election campaign across these troubled islands could easily take on a life of its own; and lead us in directions which have less to do with Brexit or even with Scottish independence, than with the flawed foundations on which the whole global economic system now seems to rest, and with which party is best able to imagine and deliver a convincing alternative, to the increasingly unsustainable way we live now.