July 15, 2024
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Ignore the populist noise, Britain’s moderate mould won’t break

Ignore the populist noise, Britain’s moderate mould won’t break

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The writer is an FT contributing editor

Defeat hides a silver lining. Opposition presents an opportunity. Britain’s Labour left understood this when James Callaghan fell to defeat in 1979. Callaghan, party critics cried out, had been insufficiently socialist in fighting Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. The English nationalists on the right of the Tory party are now poised to repeat their mistake. A victory for Keir Starmer, they declare, is the chance to break the stubbornly moderate mould of British politics.

Even before most votes have been cast, the blame is being laid on Rishi Sunak’s supposed centrism. The prime minister will “own” the defeat, his former cabinet colleague Suella Braverman says menacingly. The crime? A failure to abandon every inch of the middle ground. What’s needed are much tougher immigration rules. Britain should sever all ties with the EU and quit the European Convention on Human Rights. Boats carrying asylum seekers should be turned back in the English Channel.

Tory populists chase enemies everywhere. Robert Jenrick, another former minister, blames immigrants for housing shortages. Kemi Badenoch cannot spot a liberal without starting a culture war. Liz Truss wants an assault on the progressive elites — business, the Bank of England, the judges and media establishment — she blames for cutting short her calamitous premiership. Sniping from the sidelines, Boris Johnson insists Brexit was a great idea.

Lest anyone doubt that full-throated English nationalism will provide the path back to power, these Tory radicals point to the support being lost to Nigel Farage’s Reform UK. Farage’s entry into the election as a candidate has seen a steady rise in the party’s poll rating. One survey put it fractionally ahead of the Conservatives. But the two parties have a common enemy — moderation. The Tory radicals want to welcome him into the fold after the election.

Canada is deemed to offer a convenient model for this revolution of the right. A split saw that country’s mainstream Progressive Conservatives all but wiped out in the 1993 election. The baton passed to the populists of the breakaway Reform party (the name borrowed by Farage). When Canadian conservatives returned to power under Stephen Harper they were unashamedly right-wing. Britain’s Conservatives can repeat the trick.

Omitted from this story is the inconvenient fact that the rupture cost the Canadian right 13 years in opposition — they returned to power in 2006 only after Harper’s breakaway group had reunited with the more mainstream Progressive Conservatives.

Today’s Tory plotting is still more indifferent to past British experience — history has never been a populist strong suit. The rotation of power between Britain’s centre-right and centre-left has been a constant since 1922, when the Labour party replaced the Liberals as the main opposition. The first past the post voting system has proved an impregnable barrier against flights to extremism.

For all the present noise about the march of populism, British voters have been remarkably constant in their moderation. The pendulum has swung to left and right over time — more often to the benefit of the Conservatives than to Labour — but never so far as to provide a breakthrough for the far right or far left.

Labour discovered this in the early 1980s when its embrace of socialism provoked the creation of the centrist breakaway Social Democratic party. The split gifted Thatcher two more general election victories. Labour’s return to power in 1997 came only after it had shifted decisively to the middle ground.

The current election tells the same story. As politics across the Channel in France seems set on rushing to the extremes, Britain is heading back towards the centre. While the civil war among the Tories and the strong showing for Reform grabs attention, the landslide majority predicted for Starmer is rooted in his party’s reoccupation of the centre.

There are many reasons why the Conservatives look set to lose the election, but only one why Labour is on track to win — Starmer’s credible promise of a return to stability, pragmatism and, above all, moderation. Yes, the Tory nationalists make a lot of noise and Farage has a particular appeal to those worst hit by over a decade of economic stagnation, but the party of Disraeli’s One Nation has surrendered the territory on which elections are won.

Brexit, now regretted by a majority of the electorate, was a sudden rush of blood to the head of an electorate despairing of falling living standards and government-imposed austerity. The British now want some peace and quiet. Sunak’s impending defeat may well break the Tory party. The political mould is made of stronger stuff.

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