When it happened, it was quite funny, if you’re a Tory inclined voter. Some almost unknown back bench rebel MP elected Labour Party leader. And on top of that he had a history of associating with disreputable people, including terrorists. Hilarious. The Tories would be in power for a decade. A double victory for George Osborne and David Cameron.
Yet at the time some of us warned our fellow Tory inclined voters that it wasn’t a joke. That this was supremely dangerous. That without a decent opposition, the government would make horrendous mistakes.
The failure of the opposition to oppose this government with any coherence makes the government majority of 12 seem like one of 120. There isn’t just clear blue water between the two front benches, there is an entire ocean of it. While there are “lefty” Tory MPs – some “lefty” Ministers even – there are none who are so far left as to agree with the Labour front bench.
All of this was underlined for me in the appallingly bad New Year video produced by Labour. Putting aside the fact that most teenagers could produce a better quality video on their iPhone, it was the message that was so worrying. “We opposed the government on tax credit cuts, and we defeated them. We opposed the government on police cuts, and we defeated them.”
There are two possible theories here, and both are depressing. The first is that Jeremy Corbyn genuinely believes that it was his opposition to tax credit cuts and police cuts that defeated the government, not internal pressure from furious Tory MPs and a defeat in the House of Lords, a place he doesn’t think should exist. The second is that Jeremy Corbyn has finally conceded defeat on his “new politics” and is instead becoming a Liberal Democrat – claiming credit for stuff that happened even though he was entirely irrelevant to the outcome.
Either is depressing because it shows a complacency in the opposition, just at the point that this country needs an opposition able to tear lumps from the government.
You see the very nature of our democracy is currently being put at risk by this government. Having won in 2015, surprising even themselves, the government is making damned sure that they stand a better chance of winning in 2020, even if Labour rid themselves of this millstone leadership.
One of the ways the Tories are seeking to increase their grip on power is legitimate – by increasing their mandate. They’ve reclaimed the “One Nation” mantle boosted by Ed Miliband for a time, and they’ve produced a raft of policies aimed at blue collar workers. They’ve introduced a higher national minimum wage, rebranding it the “Living Wage” and they’ve got away with that through an inept opposition. The ‘emergency’ budget in July saw George Osborne steal large chunks of Ed Miliband’s Labour 2015 manifesto, in an attempt to seize the middle ground.
In much the same way as the Tories managed to direct the narrative on who caused the Great Recession, by making outrageous claims about Labour while that party was busy off the field of play choosing a new team captain, so they have done exactly the same again by rebranding themselves the party of the working man, implying Labour are only interested in the pet peeves of the Islington mafia who now run that party – benefit claimants, terrorists and immigrants.
I’ve written before on the importance of language in debate, and so all the while the Tories talk about immigrants and Labour talks about refugees, the confused public see the debate as entirely negative. It is the same for benefit claimants versus welfare state supported citizens, or terrorists versus freedom fighters. Where Blair created a miracle was by bringing in a media operation, led by Alastair Campbell, capable of using Tory language to describe socialist policies; the public elected him PM in every election he led the Labour Party.
Using policy to increase your mandate with the voters, using language to frame the debate, casting your opposition as not on the side of the majority of voters – all of this is a legitimate way of increasing your grip on power if you are the government.
What is far less legitimate – and what a decent opposition would be screaming blue murder about – is the power grab for the executive currently going on.
There is nothing wrong, in principle, with reducing the number of MPs. It is certainly something that will resonate well with the voters. But if you reduce the number of MPs, you must surely reduce the number of Ministers that these MPs have to scrutinise. Yet the Tory government wants to reduce the number of MPs, and simultaneously increase the number of Ministers. This makes it much harder for the backbench MPs to properly hold the executive to account.
There is nothing wrong, in principle, with reducing the powers of the unelected House of Lords. There are more members of the Upper House than there are members of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. It is the largest legislature in the world. And not one of them is elected by a public mandate – though ironically the remaining 92 Heriditary peers are still elected by their peers, making them the most legitimate and the most illegitimate members at the same time. Yet the Tory government doesn’t want to reduce the number of members in the House of Lords, or introduce a level of democracy. No, instead it wants to reduce the power of the Upper House to hold the executive to account, reducing their power to scrutinise secondary legislation while simultaneously increasing the volume of secondary legislation. The consequences of forcing a Treasury U turn on tax credits are having a profound impact on the UK constitution.
The government has also slashed “Short Money”. This is money given to opposition parties to pay for the running of their professional offices – so that if they find themselves elected into office, they have policies which have been drawn up properly, costed and debated, and which can be handed to civil servants on day one for implementation. The saving to the taxpayer is trivial, but the move will cut the subsidy by 19%, costing Labour £1.2 million a year. All the time the Tory government has the advantage of the civil service producing its forecasts and policy papers. Oh, and the bankers funding the Tory party, especially now they’ve been told the banking commission won’t be going after them quite as harshly as expected.
I’m less worried by the Trade Union Bill, which will cut the funding of Labour by £5.4 million by making the political levy an opt-in rather than an opt-out. This is actually a move which Ed Miliband pledged after the scandal of a Unite inspired selection stitch up in a Scottish constituency – a scandal that involved Len McLuskey and Tom Watson, now Labour’s deputy leader.
The Tory government also want to reduce the powers of the Freedom of Information Act, with the moronic Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, suggesting that it made for lazy journalism – his desire to curb the freedom of the media not being at all connected to his appearance in the investigations of the Daily Telegraph into the MPs expenses scandal, of course.
Meanwhile the Lobbying Act has reduced the amount trades unions and voluntary groups can spend on political campaigning by 60%, without actually making any changes to the lobbying scandals that are awaiting discovery – David Cameron himself described professional lobbying as the next great scandal to hit British politics.
The ease with which the Tories are passing these measures reflects the paucity of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Far from defeating the government in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn actually helped them out by allowing them cover to dump unpopular policies – but he hasn’t prevented a single one of these issues going through in almost total darkness. A competent opposition would be seeking friends on the government benches to ensure none of these positions passes. Those friends exist – more than a dozen Tory MPs are against any one of these changes. But instead Labour are focussing on purging good Labour MPs like Mike Gapes and Jamie Reed, fighting themselves and generally looking like a student union on a bad day, rather than coming together for the common good and fighting this overbearing and arrogant Tory government.
For the good of the country, Labour needs a leader capable of taking the fight to the Tories. Jeremy Corbyn, for all his good points, is NOT that man. It is about time Labour members beyond the Parliamentary Labour Party realised that. It is about time Corbyn realised that.
What started out as a joke, simply isn’t funny anymore.