Whoever you are, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, we can all agree that Jeremy Corbyn is within touching distance of power. If Labour and the Conservatives continue on their upward and downward trajectories, Larry the Downing Street cat may soon find himself in the lap of a socialist.
The failures of the Conservative election campaign have been well documented over recent weeks with cracks among the ranks starting to show on Brexit, austerity, the deficit and what went wrong during the campaign. Given the outcome of the election, it’s easy to understand why Conservatives are struggling to come up with cohesive, unified answers to the awkward questions they now face. The question of leadership, of values, of direction and, of course, of what went wrong.
The style of campaign run by the Conservatives was, in summary, wholly unfit for the current political landscape. The nation is facing great and unprecedented challenges and is yearning for serious discussion about how they might be surmounted. Serving up banal cliches was not enough.
Churchill discovered in 1945 that defeating Hitler was not enough to keep him in power. Then as now, the electorate were concerned with the future as much as the past and wanted serious answers to what came next.
This is where the Labour Party excelled in the election campaign. They outfought the Conservatives in the battle of ideas. Despite not having won a convincing majority since 1987, the Conservative record in government since 2010 is one to be proud of. Tax cuts for those on low wages has moved so many from welfare to work; corporation tax cuts have increased tax receipts and provided more employment opportunities; unemployment rates have plunged with more people in work than ever before; poverty has fallen to reduce the gap between the rich and poor; 86% of pupils are now in good or outstanding schools compared to 66% when they first came to power; all of these achievements were somewhat absent from a campaign epitomised by three infamous words. Whilst the message discipline was commendable, the message itself was wrong. The manifesto did little to solve that. Despite identifying the ‘five great challenges’ the nation faces, it proffered no answer on how to overcome them. It diagnosed the problem and told the country what was wrong, but offered no treatment.
The economy, rather than being front and centre, was subservient to Jeremy Corbyn’s inadequacy. The basic Conservative belief in prosperity and opportunity was overlooked. When attacked on being ‘for the few, not the many’, the response wasn’t to explain that tax cuts result in prosperity which results in a stronger, fairer society with reduced poverty and greater life chances for all; the response was, instead, that Labour’s leader wasn’t fit for the job.
We know that Corbyn’s brand of socialism is woefully out of step with the economic realities of the government purse. But to base a campaign on being the lesser of two evils has allowed the Labour Party room to sell their ideas and to become, as Michael Gove once termed it, the ‘warriors for the dispossessed’, and thanks to clever electioneering, the warriors for the young. Recent elections across the globe show us that, more often than not, hope triumphs over fear.
Had the Conservatives built on the achievements of David Cameron they could have begun to carve out a reputation as being more than just the party that’s called in to clean up economic mess. But an obsession with negative campaigning and bridging the gap between left and right by copying old Labour policies left little room for Conservatism.
Look across the continent, though, and it’s clear that the British Conservatives aren’t the only right-wing party that have misread the public mood and are struggling to find effective messages that resonate with the electorate. Despite polling that suggests a huge amount of interest in lower taxes, individual liberty and the nation state, conservative parties across Europe have abandoned those core ideas and voters have duly abandoned their natural allegiances. This is made all the more remarkable by the sordid history of socialism; a political ideology that has never worked. Every attempt to practice true socialism has resulted in economic failure. It claims to fight for the poor and yet it is the poor who suffer most under socialist regimes. A glance back at 20th century history provides more than sufficient evidence of that; take Germany and Korea, two nations split in two, one half practicing socialism and the other capitalism. In these experiments, socialism induced rock-bottom wages, political oppression and mass starvation. By contrast, the closest thing to a purely capitalist state on the planet – Hong Kong – experienced economic growth in the late 20th century like nowhere else in the world, transforming it from barren territory to a per capita wealth greater than Britain’s. In the battle of socialism vs capitalism the evidence of success points overwhelmingly to the latter, and yet this basic tenet was missing from the Conservative rhetoric.
The lesson that can be taken from this election is that adopting the policies of opponents and reheating pale imitations of their old manifestos is not a route to electoral success. If they try to play Corbyn at his own game, they will fail. The Conservative Party must figure out what it is truly for rather than what it’s against, and return to the core beliefs on which it was founded – growth, prosperity, aspiration and opportunity.