Their turmoil is our opportunity!
THERESA MAY MIGHT HAVE A WORRYING LEAD in the polls, but recent events underline just how vulnerable her government is. Chancellor Hammond’s budget fell apart within days of being announced.
The U-turn on the hike in National Insurance contributions, which broke a 2015 Tory manifesto pledge, was not just a sign of incompetence. It reveals a fundamental rift between the Prime Minister and the man claiming to run the economy. Expect more of the budget to unravel.
Real wages are falling, worth less than they were nine years ago, and inflation is rising. Unsecured household borrowing is rocketing while business investment is plummeting. Almost a million people are on zero-hours contracts. Local councils, education, health and social care all remain chronically under-funded, while another £1 billion is thrown at the vanity project of free schools. Meanwhile, more cuts are on the way, disproportionately falling on women and the poor, with the added burden of reduced benefits for those with disabilities from April.
The government faces crises on other fronts too. A dozen police forces have passed files to the Crown Prosecution Service over allegations that up to 20 Conservative MPs broke local spending limits at the last General Election. The Electoral Commission has fined the Tories a record £70,000 and prosecutions and by-elections could ensue. Much as they downplay the implications, the conclusions are clear: the Tories cheated their way to power.
The moral bankruptcy of this government is underlined in other ways. It went back on its word to accept the Dubs amendment to take in unaccompanied refugee children and scrapped the project after only 300 had entered the UK - despite local authorities having made the arrangements to receive hundreds more. Yet this sort of behaviour is to be expected from a government that continues to provide the bombs that Saudi Arabia drops daily on Yemen, a country now so devastated that 17 million of its people are on the verge of famine.
Looming over everything is a constitutional crisis springing from May’s drive towards a hard Brexit. The government admitted recently that it had not considered the economic implications of a failure to get a deal on its demands. Yet exactly why the EU would be rushing to meet the Tories’ conditions, rather than closing ranks to preserve its own membership benefits, is anyone’s guess.
Unsurprisingly, the SNP, pointing out that Scotland voted by a majority to remain, want no part of this mess. They are pushing for a second independence referendum, currently rejected by Number Ten, a stance that will only escalate the crisis.
In the north of Ireland too, the electoral rebuff to the Democratic Unionist Party is also a rejection of Brexit, in a part of these islands where the economic and social consequences are likely to be most severe. By reducing unionism to a minority at Stormont for the first time since Ireland was partitioned, these results also have profound implications for the peace process.
The narrow, exclusionary nationalism that the anti-EU Tories and their UKIP friends recklessly championed in last year’s referendum has not only been weaponised against immigrants and minorities. It now threatens the territorial structure of the UK itself.
But this is also an opportunity for those who value a genuinely pluralistic, multicultural society to push back against the bullying of the tabloid media, who have monstered leading opponents of a hard Brexit on account of their ethnicity or sexuality. It’s a moment to say who we are: a tolerant, inclusive society that rejects the insular vision that the government’s hard Brexiteers would foist on this country.
These combined crises are also a great opportunity for the Labour Party at all levels to change the political balance of forces. We can expect little help from the media, many of our MPs, or local council leaderships. But the policies of Jeremy Corbyn and his team are popular and resonate with ordinary voters. If we turn our focus outwards – working locally and nationally, using the huge growth in membership to turn our Party into a campaigning social movement that engages with the public – we can reverse the opinion polls and build an unstoppable force. The Tories are there for the taking!