After the recent by-elections it seems a Labour election victory is almost inevitable – but what of the Conservative party? A Tory defeat will almost certainly mean Sunak will have to resign, and if that means his successor is a right wing extremist, this may have important implications for the Labour government. In fact, the Conservatives may have some useful lessons to learn from Labour’s history. On several occasions in the past Labour seemed unelectable – however there always was a strong group and strong leadership that fought back to defeat the extremists.
In 1959, for instance, the Tories had a majority of 100. The Labour left had won control of the unions and most constituency parties. But, led by Gaitskell and brilliantly organised by Bill Rodgers, the Labour moderates won back control of both and won the next election.
After Mrs Thatcher’s huge victory over Michael Foot’s hopelessly left wing rabble in 1983, Kinnock, starting as a passionate left winger, changed his views and bravely led Labour back to electability. Although he did not win the next election, he paved the way for Tony Blair. And of course, recently, after the disaster of Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer ruthlessly purged the left and looks set for a major victory.
But the Tories, once the pragmatic party, traditionally the party in power, have become an ideological clique. And while Sunak and Hunt are not immoral self-seeking opportunists like Boris Johnson, or irrational extremists like Liz Truss, they are certainly not moderates. They believe that Brexit, a small state and tax cuts are the path to growth. And if they had not championed these views, they would never have been elected by the present right wing Tory Party.
Where were the voices of moderation at the Conservative party conference? In a recent Guardian article, Justine Greening, one of the few Conservative critics of the right and a former cabinet minister, observed that Sunak’s opening speech at the conference sounded like Liz Truss mark II. Sunak has totally failed to confront Truss’s legacy. The three candidates for the leadership, Kemi Badenoch, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, are all right wingers; the last two very much on the far right. Indeed, one more possible candidate who cannot be ruled out is Nigel Farage.
So, what could be the effect of Tory extremism on Labour? It will face formidable problems in government. Today nothing seems to work. Schools and hospitals are crumbling, there are crises on the railways, unprecedented strikes by medical professionals etc. The list is endless. But expectations of a new government will still be high, and if there is no improvement in the economy within the first few years, there will be deep disillusionment.
So why is it so important that Starmer has ruled out joining the European Single Market (ESM)? Because the restoration of the link with our nearest, biggest, and most profitable market would have an early beneficial impact on the economy, which no other measure can match. It would strengthen the pound, ease the rise in food prices and improve the balance of payments, foreign investment and productivity. There would also be a most welcome reduction of red tape, for example no more queues at airports for stamping passports. But without the growth generated by renewed ESM membership, disillusionment, stirred up by the Tory press, is almost inevitable and could cause a possible restoration of support for nationalists and right wingers, with real dangers to our democracy.
Of course, there will be two main objections to rejoining the ESM. First, will the EU have us? But our rejoining would not only strengthen our economy, it would also, to a lesser extent, strengthen the EU’s. More importantly, a firmly established, left-of-centre Labour government would strengthen the EU politically. There are profound worries in Europe about the gathering strength of the right, especially by the rise of Alternative für Deutschland, and a fear that Marie Le Pen might become president of France. It would be madness at a time of Russian aggression, Chinese expansion and uncertainty about the future role of the United States, to keep Britain outside the tent. If Starmer was bold, he would show strong support for Tusk’s success in Poland in fighting extremism and, in Jefferson’s words, “swear eternal enmity to every form of tyranny over the mind of man” (and woman!) He could be a leader in Europe.
The second objection was the public’s deep concern about immigration. This has faded. The public now recognises that we need skilled immigrants, and in any case, official forecasts now suggest that the net increase of some 600,000 a year will decline to around 200,000.
I believe that most Labour supporters, who now seem to be a public majority, are anti-Brexit and in favour of rejoining the ESM; in fact, Britain is now an anti-Brexit nation. It should be possible to organise a strong lobby in favour of a policy which would greatly strengthen the European Union. But if Starmer continues with his present policy of caution, he risks disaster.