Leonid Polyakov – head of the Department of General Politics of the Higher School of Economics, member of the ISEPR Foundation Expert Board
A snap election to the lower chamber of Britain’s parliament of June 9 that resulted in a disastrous Tory failure and another hung parliament is behind. Now it is time for a party marathon. In September-October political parties that won seats in the House of Commons hold their party conferences.
They have plenty to talk about: about the past – the results of the parliamentary elections, about the present – the positions of each party at the beginning of a new political season. And of course, they have to discuss the future in order to declare their ambitions and demonstrate their commitment to (if need be) become (or, in case of the Tories, to remain) the party of Government.
The Liberal Democrats (12 seats in the House of Commons) were the first: they gathered in Bournemouth on September 16-19. Then the Labour Party (262 seats) followed the example, it held the conference in Brighton on September 24-27. The looser of the snap election, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), that lost its single mandate, held its conference in Torquay, also a resort town, on September 29-30.
Four more party conferences are planned for October. Conservatives (318 seats) gathered in Manchester on October 1-4. The Green Party (1 seat) held its conference in Harrogate on October 7-10. On October 8-10 the Scottish National Party (35 seats) had a meeting, of course in Glasgow. The Party of Wales (Plaid Cymru – 4 seats) is going to meet on October 20-21.
The focal point of six previous conferences was easy to predict – of course it was Brexit. It is by no means surprising that this particular topic has been dominating British politics for 14 months already, since the referendum. Rather, it is surprising that the party that initiated the referendum and whose leader Theresa May, it would seem, flatly stated: “Brexit means Brexit”, has recently been placing this decisiveness in question.
In particular, one and the same Theresa May delivering her speech in Florence on September 22 pronounced the following phrase: “We may be leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe”. The fact that the UK is not leaving Europe as regards geography is a banality. Only a political lightweight could sink to its level, but not British Prime Minister. But did Theresa May really mean that leaving the union of 28 European countries the United Kingdom would remain with the rest 24 states including Russia?! Or the most extreme alternative: that soon there would be no European Union at all but only “good old Europe” where nobody would try to dominate the UK?
Theresa May explained what she really meant during the same speech. And everything was reduced, on the one hand, to pretty much achievable specifics, but on the other – to a vague image of an alternative “desired future”, which will be not just difficult to achieve but under certain circumstances – impossible at all.
To be more precise: after Brexit the border between the Northern Ireland and the EU member state Republic of Ireland will remain open. And EU citizens living and working in the UK (and, as it is supposed, British citizens living and working in the EU member states) will preserve the same rights. Theresa May promised to integrate this arrangement into the British legislation and oblige country’s courts to consider the regulatory acts of the European Court of Justice while making their judgements.
As for a “desired future” in terms of economics, here everything is Britain-style cloudy. It is only clear that they will have to leave the EU single market and customs union. But what will they get in return? Joining the European Economic Area is not an option by definition: it is not Brexit if they again will have to conform to someone else’s rules. An option of creating a free trade area after the “EU-Canada” model is sort of limited. So, one will have to rely on Theresa May’s creativity and fantasy which she demonstrated concluding the economic part of her speech in Florence: “So this new economic partnership, would be comprehensive and ambitious. It would be underpinned by high standards, and a practical approach to regulation that enables us to continue to work together in bringing shared prosperity to our peoples for generations to come”. Even if it is not in Neverland, still somewhere very close to it. So, in fact – nowhere.
So, why does Theresa May resort to combining purely practical measures and flights of imagination while explaining what exactly Brexit means? There are two reasons. First, these are growing attacks of political rivals who from the very beginning were against leaving the EU and are now ready to catch the government out on every slip-up in order to initiate its resignation and new parliamentary election. Second, these are the expectations of those who voted for Brexit that the Tory government will manage to implement the mandate received from the majority of British people properly. So, nobility obliged. Moreover, just before May’s Florence speech the most vociferous opponents of Brexit – liberal democrats – held the conference where their new leader Sir Vince Cable lashed out at the Tories exactly because of this main point.
First of all, he called his party an “undiluted pro-European” one and a “party of Remain”. On these grounds he numbered Brexit among the worst sins of the Tories and Labour alongside with the involvement in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and allowing the financial crisis in 2008. He even called for creating an “anti-Brexit+People’s Liberation Front” national coalition. In particular, according to Cable, his “Anti-Brexit People’s Liberation Front” should strive for a final national vote after all terms of the UK withdrawal from the EU will be agreed and announced rather than for one more referendum. But it is impossible to determinate nation’s will while Brexit is just a “wrap-up”.
Actually, the speech of the leader whose part has only 12 seats in the House of Commons might seem not exactly appropriate at least because it is proclaiming itself a “government of the future”. But, apparently, the reminiscence of five-year involvement in the government (2010-2015) and vice-premiership of their previous leader Nick Clegg is still alive among the Lib Dems, so the announcement of the new leader was cheered. And, according to the formula “Hope and realism”, Vince Cable stated the conditions under which the hopes may be realized. They are: lowering the voting age to 16-17, replacing majority one-round electoral system with a proportional one and major decentralization.
Fulfilling these wishes the Lib Dems may get good chances to build up their presence in the British parliament and, consequently, to join government coalitions. But it is difficult to imagine that they will manage to break the duopoly called “Westminster system”, especially after the triumphant conference of the main beneficiary of the election who got an increase of 33 mandates – the Labour Party.
The speech of their leader Jeremy Corbyn is the most remarkable event of the autumn party marathon so far. Almost after each sentence he was interrupted by the applause (often all the present even stood up). And it is not difficult to understand why they did so. The numbers mentioned by Corbyn could not but impress his party fellows. The Labour Party has received the highest number of votes since 1945! The Party is a major political actor not only in the UK but also in the Western Europe as a whole. It numbers 600000 members and 3 million trade unionists – it is more than other British parties all put together do.
Against this positive background, Corbyn especially succeeded in pronouncing sharp words about the main competitor – the Tory Party. He called himself and his “shadow” cabinet “government in waiting” and government coalition of the Conservatives and Democratic Unionist Party – a “coalition of chaos”. He also added here some mass media speculations about the squabbling for leadership in the Conservative Party and wrote a story of weak, dysfunctional and irresponsible government that “holds power by not much more than its fingernails”.
Posturing the Labour as a “modern, forward-thinking socialist party”, Corbyn described Tories’ economic strategy as following Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal course. The key pillars of this strategy are: deregulation, privatization, reducing taxes imposed on wealthy people, limiting labour rights, ensuring profits for the few and debts – for the many. Of course, the Labour’s economic strategy is completely different. And the conference motto “For the many not the few” that was continually repeated by the speaker was especially pompous.
As for the key issue of the British domestic policy debates – Brexit – Corbyn was not as radical here as the Lib Dems were. There are enough Brexit supporters in the Labour Party. But even here Jeremy Corbyn tried to distance his party from the Tories. He noticed: “As democratic socialists, we accept and respect the referendum result”. But at the same time he said that his party would not give a “green light to a reckless” agenda of the Tories still unable to reach an agreement with the European Union on the conditions of Brexit, “putting at risk people’s jobs, rights and living standards”.
Nevertheless, despite thunderous applause a fundamental difference between the Labour Party and the Conservatives regarding Brexit did not became clear. The issue of the transition period with membership in the single market and customs union and of the EU citizens’ rights in the UK Theresa May has touched upon back in her Florence speech. Moreover, Tories did not emphasize “fear of migrants”. But Corbyn provided this issue with a specific (to the greatest pleasure of those present) focus. And when it came to to the most difficult question – what exactly should the country do after Brexit? – he fell into pathetics over the necessity for all (who voted either for Brexit or against it) to join forces under the same slogan “For the many…”. And this will be the task of the next labour government that – as we have already heard – is waiting in the wings.
The Conservatives getting into the marathon had what to respond to and, to be honest, they “gave a Roland for an Oliver”. First of all, they managed to crafty play with the imperfection of the Labour Party’s motto and held their conference in Manchester under the slogan “Building a country that works for everyone”. This emphasize on “everyone” rather than “many” was enough for the main speaker Theresa May to ensure a better position for herself and her party in comparison to the Labour with their class views.
Reminding of “British dream” and necessity to renew it was the keynote of her speech. It looks like the essence of this dream was copied from the American one, even though it is presented as a more general hope that every generation thereafter will live better than the previous one. But at the same time, just like they do in America, Theresa May tried to describe her country as the “land of the Covenant” that had always attracted people from Asia and Africa.
This allowed the Prime Minister to artfully intertwine her speech with harsh criticism of the lefties’ isolationism and nationalists’ separatism and, to loud ovation, announce that the second Scottish referendum would not take place. May’s vision of the country as a strong alliance of four nations transformed into positioning it as “global Britain” that after leaving the EU will gain the whole world. And overcoming the voice that was getting strained and cold-related cough the Prime Minister declared: “We will provide a moral lead in the world, and set an example for others!”
In general, were it not for the cough and sometimes woolly voice, this speech could be as triumphant as Jeremy Corbyn’s one, even though famous British comedian Simon Brodkin managed to get close to Theresa May and handed her P45 – a form given to British state officials when they are dismissed – and said: “Boris asked me to give you this”. Of course, he was immediately gently led away from the hall but the bad taste lingered. An extravagant minister Boris Johnson is really suspected in intraparty struggle for party leadership and, consequently, premiership.
Corbyn’s words about the “coalition of conservative chaos” may seem a rhetorically understandable exaggeration, but in politics rumours do not appear out of the blue. Aside from pretty much natural (of course, selfish) intraparty strife, there is something else that can fuel the intraparty competition and jeopardize Theresa May’s current positions. It is a question of the ideological positioning of the party both in its own eyes and in the eyes of the British society. May tried to answer what being a conservative means, defining conservatism as “fairness, justice and opportunity for all”. Perhaps this sounds good but it is still too general.
And this makes us finally remember of the UKIP conference where a thing that is placing in question Tories’ conservative identity happened. Quaint and witty David Kurten who reported on education issues cited Tony Blair who warned of “evil forces of conservatism” and said: “Well I have news for you, Mr. Blair – we are the forces of conservatism! We will stand up for our nation, our faith, our history, our heritage and our identity”.
Of course, one may perceive the UKIP as fringes lacking world outlook and deserving no attention at all. Moreover, this party has been deprived of its mandates in the House of Commons. But, just in case, one should remember that it is its founder Nigel Farage who became the main “driver” of the pro-Brexit campaign. And he won in disregard of all estimates of the Conservatives who initiated the referendum. And won’t the demand for clear conservative identity become one of the key motives of the following (entirely possible – early) electoral campaign? As it is said – with all that it implies…