‘The real breaking point after Brexit will lie between a Red Tory and Blue Labour movement against the Lib Dem and Blairite corporatists’
Robert Halfon: “Broadly, the Red Tories and Blue Labour have much in common” (Chris McAndrew CC BY-3.0)
Almost every day you read of some plot — the latest being in a fancy hotel in Sussex — of plans for a new anti-Brexit, Blairite, Corporatist “third way” party (let’s call it the ABBC) that counters Corbynista extremism on the one side and Brexiteer fanaticism on the other. But such a centrist party would not work, for a number of reasons.
First, there is such a party already — the Liberal Democrats. It’s worth reminding ourselves it’s called “Democrat” precisely because of the social democrats who broke away from Labour during its last dalliance with the far Left in the 1980s under the leadership of Michael Foot.
According to the views of the ABBCs, the Liberal Democrats should be streets ahead in the polls, capturing all the pro-EU sentiment in its wake. The opposite has happened: the two main parties’ leaderships (admittedly in different degrees) say that “Brexit means Brexit” and are level-pegging in the polls at 35-40 per cent. Some of this may be down to the weak leadership of the Liberal Democrats, but it cannot be the only reason. It raises the question: why would a shiny new ABBC version of the Liberal Democrats be any better, except that it might be newer and fresher, for a while at least? The ABBC might also attract New Labour grandees like Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie — interesting but hardly household names.
The second reason that an ABBC party would not work is simple: this is not where the argument is. Once Britain leaves the European Union next year, what is done will be done. It’s true there could be a reverse UKIP movement created, designed to get Britain back into the EU, but what real support would it have, other than in larger metropolitan areas?
The real breaking point post-Brexit lies between Red Tories and Blue Labour on one side and ABBCs/Liberal Democrats on the other. On the fringes will be hardcore libertarians/free-marketeers on the Tory Right or more authoritarian UKIPers and no- compromise Corbynistas on the Left, but the real battle will be between those two opposing groups.
Red Tories are different from the old one-nation paternalists, whose “squires” came down from the mountain to hand out bread to the workers. Blue Labour supporters are distinct from the metropolitan, politically correct “Islington Labour” in as much as they are from the Fabian socialist centrist tradition.
Broadly, the RTs and the BLs have much in common — believing that social capital is as important as economic capital, and in communitarian politics and cultural identity, supporting but restraining the excesses of capitalism and, yes, of Brexit. They are mainly to be found in towns and smaller cities up and down the country, and will vote Conservative or Labour according to their cultural tradition but are increasingly switching between the two. Often they may be working, but struggling, with one family member working all day and one at night just to keep their heads above water. They are not against entrepreneurship but want good public services and are susceptible to Corbynista arguments about nationalisation and austerity, when they see rail services failing, no police on the streets, and the NHS creaking. They also want lower taxes and would probably cut the overseas aid budget by half. While patriotic and traditional, the RTs and BLs are more socially liberal than is often imagined and believe in controlling rather than opposing immigration. To paraphrase David Goodhart, the RTs and BLs are “Somewheres” as opposed to the ABBC/Lib-Dem “Anywheres”.
For a while, at least in the early days of her premiership, it looked as if Theresa May understood this, when she talked of helping those “just about managing” and addressing burning injustices. Her poll ratings rocketed because she was reaching millions of RT and BL voters, who felt they had been under-represented for some time. It was only after the 2017 manifesto reverted to an old Tory “Alan B’stard” attitude (cut free school meals, take away the winter fuel allowance) that the BL and RT voters deserted once again — leading to the Conservatives losing their Commons majority.
In the Westminster cauldron, there are significant numbers of Conservative and Labour colleagues who are both RT and BL. Already there are intellectuals and pressure groups building the foundations (albeit not together) of an RT/BL movement — people like Lord Glasman and John Cruddas on the Labour side and Phillip Blond and the pressure group Tory Workers on the Conservative wing. The first step post-Brexit may not be a new party but a caucus of Blue Labour and Red Tories, operating in the interests of working people.
The fog of Brexit has obscured many of the political arguments that are going on. The Red Tory/Blue Labour movement is beginning to emerge through the haze.