Untouchable?

David Runciman on prospects for opposing the Tories

As we stumble towards the end of this summer of political discontent, talk of the country drifting towards being a one-party state is cheap. The new Conservative government appears impregnable, for the simple reason that the main party of opposition looks incapable of replacing it, yet no one else seems capable of replacing Labour as the main party of opposition. Theresa May commands the battlefield and her enemies have scattered. But is this really what a one-party state looks like? This isn’t Turkey. There have been no mass demonstrations in support of the regime; no culls of public institutions or collective firings of unsound public officials (more than a thousand schools have been closed in Turkey, all university deans have been forced to resign, more than two thousand academics are currently suspended; at my university the worst that’s happened this summer is that the handful of academics who were brave enough to come out for Brexit have found some of their colleagues don’t want to sit next to them at lunch); no calls to root out the enemy within. This isn’t post-apartheid South Africa either, where the electoral unassailability of the ANC has often made the courts the sole point of opposition (and the target of ANC ire). It’s true that the courts have played an outsized role in British politics this summer, but that’s not because they have been fighting a rearguard action against the government. They have been dragged into the miserable internal disagreements of the Labour Party.

This isn’t Britain at the turn of the century. Then Labour really did run everything. Blair’s government had a monstrous Commons majority (160 plus) and was still capable of hitting the mid-fifties in opinion polls (in 1999 and 2001). In addition to its dominant position in Westminster, Labour was also the post-devolution party of government in Scotland and Wales. The Blair project’s only real setback came in the London mayoral election of 2000, when the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, finished a distant third. But the fact that the runaway winner was Ken Livingstone, who stood as an independent but was in effect the alternative Labour candidate (and became the official Labour candidate in 2004), shows the extent of the party’s hold on every aspect of British politics.

One mark of a one-party state is that internal party disputes become the primary political battleground. By contrast, Theresa May leads a strikingly united party, at least for now. But her Commons majority is only 12. London has a Labour mayor and an increasingly left-leaning electorate. Despite the party’s recent revival in Wales and Scotland, the Conservatives are still nowhere near government in either place. The House of Lords, a traditional Tory bastion, is at present heavily stacked against the government: fewer than a third of its members are Conservatives. Part of Cameron’s motivation for rewarding his chums with peerages after his resignation was a belief that Tories in the Lords are thin on the ground. Finally there is Europe, where the current government is even more friendless. No wonder the Tories are united: it’s easy to see why they might feel surrounded and ready to circle the wagons.

In reality the appearance of Tory strength is little more than a function of the hopeless weakness of the Labour Party in Westminster. Yet under the British political system, facing a busted opposition in Parliament can get you a very long way. The British constitution provides few safeguards against executive rule. The mayor of London can’t stop the prime minister from getting her way, any more than the first minister of Scotland can. The House of Lords has some of those powers, but its lack of democratic legitimacy makes it a weak vehicle for them. Had Blair reformed the Lords – as he promised to do – we might not be in this position. But when an unelected chamber faces an elected one, it can’t substitute for the absence of opposition in the latter without appearing to be substituting for democracy as well. There has to be some chance of the Tories losing the next election before anyone not standing for election can get in their way. I hate to keep harping on this point, but that’s why constitutional reform really matters.

Is there really no chance the Tories could lose? After all, the redeeming feature of any first-past-the-post system is meant to be its capacity to recalibrate the balance of power very rapidly as the public mood changes. No honeymoon lasts for long. As the American political commentator Sean Trende likes to point out, if the Democrats could recover after being on the wrong side of the bloodiest civil war in history, parties can come back from just about anything. How bad would things have to get for Corbyn to stand a chance of winning a general election? Very bad. But even then, a crisis precipitated by Tory failure – an economic meltdown, a foreign policy disaster, a constitutional impasse – would almost certainly make the electorate reluctant to entrust power to a divided and dysfunctional opposition led by a woolly ideologue. Corbyn loses if the stakes are high, but he also loses if the stakes are low, since there would be little reason for the electorate to look past its prejudices against him. What if Labour managed to get rid of Corbyn? The party’s current reputation for infighting and incompetence will still be very hard to overcome. Given the absence of constitutional safeguards in the British system, why would the voters put their future in the hands of these people?

The result is that we are in the paradoxical situation of seeing a weak and embattled government behaving as though it were untouchable. May has been fearless, but only because she feels she has so little to fear from the other side. Her cabinet appointments have resulted in the wholesale reorganisation of Whitehall departments with barely a whisper of opposition. She appointed an inexperienced acolyte – Liz Truss – to the job of justice secretary, whose responsibilities include defending the integrity of the judiciary against the executive. Putting an apparatchik in charge of the legal system could be a mark of political weakness – May needs all the help she can get – or of political strength: there’s nothing anyone can do to stop her. In this case it’s probably both. The first real signs of resistance are only now starting to appear and they are coming from inside the government. Boris Johnson is unhappy with the aggrandising behaviour of Liam Fox at the newly created Department for International Trade. David Davis at the newly created Department for Exiting the European Union is unhappy with both of them. This kind of turf warfare will only get worse as the time for invoking Article 50 draws near. It will put huge strain on the Tories’ united front. But who is there to exploit it apart from Johnson, Fox and Davis themselves?

May will soon face the same challenge that confronted Blair in very different circumstances. She came to Downing Street promising a government that works in the interests of the whole country, just as Blair claimed that New Labour would be ‘the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole’. It’s easy to make those promises when there’s no real opposition. But soon enough they start to look hollow. Blair’s government – with its lord chancellor who was once the head of Blair’s chambers, followed by a justice secretary who was once his flatmate – quickly gave the appearance of being an insiders’ club, and his everyman personality palled into something much more peculiar and partisan. A lot of May’s everywoman appeal comes from the fact that she represents neither side in one of the great divides in British social life. She isn’t metropolitan – unlike Blair and Cameron, who could hardly have been more quintessential embodiments of affluent urban living – but she isn’t rural: she isn’t a Shires Tory. She’s something else, and it’s hard to find a word for it without sounding snobbish. Traditional? Suburban? Provincial? Whatever it is, it could have very wide appeal. But it’s just as likely to turn into something narrow and off-putting: neither city nor countryside but that straitlaced, security-conscious, slightly smug region that lies in between. This is a government of grammar school-educated meritocrats, most of whom represent constituencies in the south outside London. They are pretty chummy too, especially May and her chancellor, Philip Hammond. The ones who aren’t friends are going to be at one another’s throats before long. And the ones who are friends will make everyone else feel excluded.

We have a one-nation government acting as though this is a one-party state, when it is plausibly neither. But who can put together a coalition of the disaffected capable of defeating it? There is no other party – not even a progressive coalition of parties – that can bridge the metropolitan/rural divide, or the divide between England and Scotland, or between pensioners and students, or between Leavers and Remainers. The first-past-the-post system will fracture any Labour/SNP/Green/Plaid/Lib Dem alliance far quicker than it will fracture the Conservative Party. It will also, when the new constituency boundary changes come in, entrench the Tories’ electoral grip. What is the opposition to do? One possibility is to give up on trying to bridge national divides and concentrate instead on what can be done at local level. Labour is still strong as the party of metropolitan Britain. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, represents one possible future for Labour. So, less enticingly, does Andy Burnham, who is quitting national politics to become (almost certainly) the next mayor of Greater Manchester. Social democracy is struggling at the national level right across Europe: terrorism, immigration and above all the strain on public finances since 2008 have made what it has to offer a very hard sell. Even in the US, where one Democratic president may be about to replace another, the populist pressures on progressive politics may soon be overwhelming. But social democracy still sells as a prospectus for city government. Cities can be more experimental, more dynamic, more accommodating. Their electorates are more used to social change: both its strains and its opportunities. Because the stakes are lower there may be more freedom to try something new. City mayors have limited powers – usually restricted to transport and policing – but there’s no reason not to push for more. And cities might have a better chance of achieving international co-operation than nation-states do, particularly on intractable questions like climate change. Britain, Germany, Italy are not going to agree on much at present. But London, Berlin, Rome? We used to be told the future belonged to cities. So why not let the Tories have national government and see what can be done at the city level instead?

Perhaps. But it’s a dispiriting vision. It doesn’t just mean giving up on forming the next government. It means giving up on all those parts of the country that don’t fit the metropolitan template, including areas of urban decay and post-industrial blight, as well as towns, villages and the countryside. These are still where most people live, as the Brexit vote showed. Maybe over time metropolitan living and metropolitan values will predominate, but in the meantime the populist backlash will only get worse and national politics is where it will continue to find its voice. There is no stable equilibrium between progressive local government and conservative national government: one lot gets to hold the purse strings while the other lot gets to work with the money they make available. In any case, the most important decisions remain the national ones. Giving up on the chance to make them would be crazy. London won’t get an opt-out from Brexit, no matter how popular its mayor is, or how much he resists. Labour’s inability to offer itself as a plausible party of government will make any resistance harder, not easier. We don’t really live in a one-party state and there are still plenty of ways for things to go wrong for the current government. But, as things stand, that’s little consolation.