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Let’s pretend Labour just won the 2017 general election

Jeremy Corbyn - Credit: Archant

What would happen if Theresa and the rest of Team May have got it all wrong?

Let’s suppose Theresa May and her minders have got it all wrong, Unite’s Len McCluskey too, and that she manages to lose her ‘Me Election’ double-digit lead as the campaign ends. No, I don’t suppose it’s because she’ll be found to be keeping a handsome-but-illegal immigrant as a toy boy, Boris from Bucharest discreetly set up in a flat in Maida Vale. That might even soften her severe image. But so many of her policy pledges, on council house building or carers’ time-off, look so flimsy that even the Daily Mail seems a bit embarrassed. Blatant Conservative ambiguity on tax-and-spending points to higher taxes for most of us after June 8 whoever wins. May’s fragility when accidentally confronted with Abingdon Kathy, the angry disability campaigner who caught her on camera, must make the EU’s negotiator, Michel Barnier, purr with anticipation. BBC TV’s post-Paxman rottweiler, Andrew Neil, will not get anywhere near her.

OK, OK, OK. I agree, none of that is likely to happen. Even without the German SPD’s setback in Sunday’s regional elections or McCluskey’s capitulation, Britain’s vote looks a done deal. The prime minister’s Praetorian Guard is taking good care to wrap her in cotton wool just in case it isn’t. Increasingly she comes across like a heavyweight boxer with a glass chin, one who once got lucky by default and now needs to be kept safely away from anyone who might take away her title. May is lucky again that no such contender is in view, at least not on this side of the Channel, though there’s a promising young Frenchman rapidly fighting his way up the rankings…..

But this election campaign – if we can dignify a sleepwalkers’ egg and spoon race with that description – is so weightless and weird, that it’s hard to tell what’s really going on beneath the surface. Might the vulgar excess of Princess Pippa Middleton’s wedding finally turn public resignation away from ‘I’m thinking of voting Tory’ into a ferocious army of John McDonnells? Might photographs – the Times ran one this week – of a £100 million superyacht, accompanied by its £50 million supply ship (for staff as well as the helicopter) be the naff detail that prods the British worm to turn? The supply vessel, the Dutch-built Game Changer, is moored above Tower Bridge in search of a buyer. Don’t be shy, Arron Banks. You need more time to yourself.

Let’s just pretend all the same. After all, elections do sometimes depart from over-confident media scripts. Harold (‘He’s Got It in the Bag’ said the headlines) Wilson lost in 1970, just as Ted Heath lost his ‘who governs Britain?’ rematch (‘clearly not you, mate’) in February 1974. Neil Kinnock was meant to beat John Major in 1992 and David Cameron not supposed to get a Tory majority in 2015. In targeting those Lib Dem coalition allies Lynton ‘Dog Whistle’ Crosby, Dave’s Australian bagman, proved too clever by half. Without the Lib Dems around to veto that half-baked referendum pledge, Cameron might still be prime minister and life might be happily duller for us all. If only.

So it’s June 9. Thanks to the Dog Whistler’s over-priced advice, May’s own insecurities and some spectacularly bad economic news linked to Brexit – what exactly? We won’t know until it happens – the one-year PM has been caught out. Those Thatcherite Tories who detect a corporatist streak in her vague industrial strategy have taken offence. The latest immigration figures – figures a court has forced Amber Rudd to publish before polling day – would have to feature in any such counter-factual fantasy… Embarrassing migrant data plus the last-minute return of Nigel Farage from wherever he’s fishing at the moment have revived the UKIP corpse and rescued Labour marginals at risk from the May Vote Hoover….. Boris (‘Where is he?’) Johnson would have to have escaped from his cellar too, and struggled to a live mic in search of a publicity-fix before being recaptured. ‘I was wrong about Brexit,’ he cries as they drag him away. Discussing whiskey in a Sikh temple, eh! Good old Boris

Shell-shocked Corbynite Labour, the reviving Lib Dems and the still-dominant SNP block at Westminster thus find themselves unexpectedly faced with the awesome responsibilities of power as the new Tory opposition fights over May’s successor. What do they do? They must work together, but how? There’s been muttering for weeks – fanned by the Tory election machine as well as Gina Miller – about efforts (they rarely do much good) to form local electoral pacts to help ‘save’ pro-EU candidates and other threatened moderates. They are offset by right-wing attempts – City moneybags Jeremy Hosking is the latest punter to be gulled on that one – to unseat them.

‘Vince Cable plots anti-Tory party’ is the second strand of the post-election plotting, the equivalent of Unite’s McCluskey (did May pinch her early election idea from Len’s premature re-election?) setting up a left alibi for Labour’s coming defeat. Tony Blair, Nick Clegg, Paddy Ashdown, the usual suspects are being lined up to form a centrist, socially liberal (where does that leave Tim Farron?) pro-business party. St Emmanuel of Macron would be their patron. Even before the SDP’s rocket launch in 1981 – rockets fly high, then crash – I doubted this strategy and still do. One day I’ll be wrong. Let’s see how Macrons centrism does in June’s parliamentary elections. Cable himself is accusing May of making her own deals – ‘a pact with the devil’ to hit the City with a Hard Brexit.

Back to June 9 and Labour’s counter-factual emergence as the largest party, its polling ratings – gently easing up in recent days – pushed still further by Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto gamble to win back struggling traditional voters. Obviously a formal Westminster coalition is out of the question after the Lib Dem experience of being constructive junior partners in 2010-15. That saw them being severely punished in the 2015 election, chiefly in university seats for that student fees increase they failed to veto. Labour has ruled out a coalition with Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP block, but let’s assume it doesn’t have an outright majority on June 9. In which case Prime Minister Corbyn would have to develop understandings, as Jim Callaghan’s Lib-Lab Pact did with David Steel to hang on for 18 months in 1977-78 and Ramsay MacDonald briefly did for 11 months in 1924. It’s what later became known as a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement. It’s one in which the smaller parties agree to back the minority government on the budget (broadly) and to vote against a Tory no confidence motion. All the rest would be by negotiation.

Actually, all that’s a detail. Because even a majority Labour government, especially one with such a bold manifesto as Corbyn, would have to strike confidence and supply deals with a host of important institutions, not just at Westminster. The alternative would be to confront in all directions except its own core vote – as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi disastrously attempted in Egypt. So Prime Minister Corbyn would have to conciliate a hostile media and CBI, not to mention trade union pals impatient for some payback. Chancellor McDonnell would have to take steps to nip the inevitable run on sterling and a market rout in the City. Foreign Secretary Thornberry would need to deploy all her charms to calm down NATO over Trident and much else. Brexit secretary Starmer would be faced with putting together a workable policy on Brexit, something he has sensibly avoided. Home Secretary Abbott would have to re-sit GCSE maths.

I know, I know, it ain’t going to happen, but it does place Tuesday’s Labour manifesto launch in some sort of context. After days of leaks, briefings and promises that detailed costings and other calculations will be revealed ‘in due course’, the document surfaced officially in Bradford University to an enthusiastic reception in the hall. It would require a heart of stone not to be touched by the innocent (most of it) enthusiasm of many of those present, nor by the delight expressed on Twitter and in below-the-line comments on progressive websites. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, as young Wordsworth put it, though not for long.

But claims that this manifesto is ‘mainstream European social democracy’, just like Bernie Saunders in the US or – in a Guardian editorial – close in some detail to the Jenkinsite SDP manifesto of 1983, miss the larger point. One is the sheer scale of Labour’s declared ambition, a vision in which Brexit is represented as playing a relatively minor party. Plenty of sensible points about changes needed in our society with wilful nonsense in what amounts to a wish list. A well-led radical leadership, the cool brain of an Obama blended with the passion of, say, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French leftist, might hope to deliver a quarter of it with luck and in good political weather. None of that applies here.

Proposals that might sound plausible from the fastidious lips of former chancellor, Roy Jenkins, don’t sound so reassuring when John McDonnell seeks to do the same. Trust is crucial, it takes time to acquire and is easily lost. Corbyn shows himself to be indecisive with almost every utterance, though his style of delivery on television is much improved and he can be genial in a guarded, slightly sarcastic way. When he was unexpectedly graceful about the Duke of Edinburgh’s retirement the other day and revealed he had done the duke’s award scheme (he got a silver) it was a rare glimpse of normality which is so often missing.

As for the manifesto, few Labour spokesmen who supposedly signed off on it in the Clause V meeting appear to understand it when challenged even gently by reporters. All will be made plain ‘in due course’, they say. No, it won’t and for the good reason that this is a holding operation, a blueprint for retaining control of a defeated party, not for running the country, as the McCluskey alibi spells out. The choreography of Corbyn’s opening remarks in Bradford gave the game away. First two middle-aged men in suits talked movingly about hardship, perhaps a little too much. As with television vox pop interviews, the thoughtful listener who engages usually wants to know more before forming a judgment.

But Corbyn’s own statement dwelled first – and at length – on thanking everyone who had contributed to the event and to the manifesto. A courteous nod would have sufficed, but this was a movie credit sequence (Dubbing Mixer, Best Boy etc) rolling right at the start of the movie, not the end. It addressed the party and the committed, not the floaters who need to be persuaded. That speaks eloquently about backroom calculations and explains how holding 200 seats will be declared a triumph. Corbyn praised Harold Wilson, which is progress. Bradford U’s old chancellor was an election winner who would have despaired of his manifesto. Of outlandish nationalisation plans he once asked: ‘Do we want to make M&S as efficient as the Coop?’ More recent election winners remain conspicuous by their absence.

In the lull between Labour and Tory manifestos – the Lib Dems came in between – the press, radio and television have crunched McDonnell’s numbers with varying degrees of savagery, the Tories doubled the price of declared spending commitment to £105 billion. It is odd that abolishing student tuition fees (£11 billion a year) and child care (£5.3 billion) are deemed a higher priority than the struggling NHS (£5 billion) and social care (£2.1 billion), not least because those fees are primarily a bung to the middle classes. It is striking that no real costings – beyond airy assurances that the assets acquired offset the outlay – are offered for the ambitiously nostalgic plan to renationalise rail, water and the mail. It reads like a Vote Leave or Leave EU flier, strong on promises (‘£350 million a week for the NHS’), weak on detail. ‘Nil cost to the taxpayer’ and ‘living within our means’ indeed. There is a Mardi Gras feeling to it all. Triple lock for OAPs? 30 hours of free child care? No further rise in the pension age? Why not?

As for the old ‘something for nothing’ pitch, trying to persuade voters than 95% of them won’t pay more tax because it will be paid by the ‘rich’, by companies and our old friends, the tax dodgers, well, we have been here many times before. ‘We are asking the rich to pay a little more,’ as McDonnell likes to put it. There are two problems with that approach. For the really rich, companies and individuals, some of whom regard HMRC much as they do charity chuggers in the street, there is always choice. ‘It’s good of you to ask, John, but if you don’t mind I’ll say No,’ they can reply as they work less or rearrange their finances in many lawful ways to avoid the chancellor’s levy.

That’s only half of it. At £80,000 a year – three times the national average and even more than a backbench MP’s pay – the ‘rich’ turn out to include head teachers, senior police officers and other middle class professionals, public and private, who are no one’s idea of a ‘fat cat’. The Phil Green rhetoric is tempting, but usually self-defeating. The less projected revenue streams deliver that they are supposed to, the more the ratchet has to be tightened. VAT? NICs? Council tax? Markets are more sensitive to the process than they might be if a more experienced and emollient figure – say Philip Hammond or the late Roy Jenkins – was massaging the figures and raising taxes. Unfair perhaps, but very understandable in the streets outside that Bradford University hall.

Serious politicians have to take account of the political weather. That’s what Blair (who?) and Brown (who again?) did in 1997. May and Hammond’s maths have barely proved better than Diane Abbott’s, but they are not being properly held to account, by either politics or the media. ‘Trust ME, ME, ME to negotiate Brexit for you,’ is the essence of May’s campaign. It is what policymakers call an Overton Window, an opportunity hole through which the PM is crawling in case a gust of political wind suddenly slams shut.

And that is the most damning charge against Labour’s manifesto. At least the Lib Dems have had the courage of their convictions to make a second Brexit referendum the centre of their campaign – ‘very brave, minister,’ as Sir Humphrey might say in the present ‘let’s get on with it’ climate. But the fantasy Labour government we tried to envisage a few paragraphs ago has nothing coherent to say on the great issue of our time: Brexit and its emotional motor, control of excessive immigration. Yes, the leaked manifesto draft has been tweaked slightly, but not effectively in ways that invites voters – Remainers and Brexiters – to help prevent the economy going over Nigel Lawson’s Cliff (‘there is no cliff’) if negotiations go badly.

Labour accepts the result of the June 23 referendum. It rejects the ‘no deal better than a bad deal’ scenario for Brexit, but has toughened up its ‘freedom of movement will end’ position while also warning against scapegoating immigrants. Admirable, but you can’t end freedom of movement and retain the benefits of the single market and customs union at the same time in the name of protecting jobs. That’s Boris (Where is he?) Johnson tactics, having one’s cake and eating it. We all know where that ended. Chuka Umunna has wobbled on the trade off between free movement and single market access, but he’s now put himself at the front of a group of London MPs demanding continued membership, the customs union too.

In normal times that would be an ‘election split’ story, but Labour is way past that stage. When the votes have all been counted, when May and David Davis are trying to pin Brussels down to parallel Brexit talks – money and trade – they don’t want, Labour will have time to sort it all out. That is, if it’s not too busy fiddling while the Treaty of Rome burns.

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