Tectonic plates shifting again?

The official reason for Theresa May calling a general election on 8 June has been treated with contempt by most observers. There were few divisions at Westminster that risked hampering the Brexit negotiations, and it appears her objective is to free her Government from any scrutiny during the process. Some are convinced that it has been called now because about twenty Tory MPs are due to be prosecuted for fraud over their election expenses and believe May wanted to secure a heftier majority to guard against her current working majority of 17 seats being chipped away by by-election defeats. Speaking at the STUC conference in Aviemore, Nicola Sturgeon had no doubt that the election was called ‘to strengthen the grip of the Tory party and crush dissent and opposition … and to do so before possible criminal prosecutions for alleged expenses fraud at the last election catches up with her’.

Of course, a Tory lead of over 20% in the opinion polls helped make up Teresa May’s mind. If maintained until election day, it would mean a landslide victory for the Tories, which poses the question of why the Labour Party agreed to go along with the proposal in the first place. The new Fixed Term Parliaments Act required a two thirds majority of all 650 MPs to agree to the election date. To prevent Theresa May going ahead with her grand plan, all Labour had to do was join the SNP in abstaining on the vote and the required majority would not have been achieved. Jeremy Corbyn could have argued that there would be no election until the Crown Prosecution Service deals with the Tory election expenses fraud. When the history of this election is written, Labour’s compliance with May’s election date could prove to be the most difficult decision of all to explain.

The reason may be that Corbyn preferred to fight an external campaign against the Tories now rather than face another three years of internecine warfare before an election. And his enemies amongst the Labour MPs may feel if Labour’s loss is as bad as the opinion polls suggest, this is their chance to get rid of him, after botching up their last attempt. Unless Labour wins the election, the divisions are set to continue with the right blaming Corbyn and his left-wing policies for any defeat. They will demand his resignation and his replacement with a right wing leader who will take Labour back to the failed policies of the past. Corbyn’s supporters, not without justification, will place the blame for any defeat at the hands of those Labour MPs who have worked to undermine their elected leader at every turn, even when it was clear that it was accelerating the collapse of Labour’s support. The battle will continue until the conference in September and will focus on the ‘McDonnell amendment’ to reduce the threshold needed to nominate a candidate for leadership from 15% of MPs to 5%. Currently, a left candidate could not expect to receive enough support to be on the ballot paper. The arithmetic could, of course, change depending on the election result (especially if more Blairites lose their seats), but if passed the McDonnell amendment would ensure a left candidate would not be kept off the ballot paper if Corbyn decides to go.

The support for the Tories has spilled over to Scotland, where, as we go to print, the once ‘toxic’ brand is polling around 30%. This up from 22% which they won in the first past the post seats at the Scottish Parliament election, and the difference is mostly accounted for by former Labour and Lib Dem voters shifting their support. Over the past year, Ruth Davidson has talked more about Scottish independence than Nicola Sturgeon or any nationalist. Even before the general election announcement, Tory leaflets and posters for the local council elections were about opposition to an independence referendum with next to nothing mentioned about local issues. This theme will continue during general election campaigning and nobody defends the Union more belligerently than the Tories. The combination of non-Tory voters supporting her to fend off a referendum, together with the encouragement of tactical voting, puts a number of SNP-held constituencies within their grasp.

At the last general election the SNP won 50% of the vote giving them 56 out of 59 MPs. It is unlikely that the SNP will outperform that result, and hence Davidson’s talk about ‘peak Nat’. If the SNP lose a few seats from this high water mark then it proves little. However, Davidson will argue that the Scottish public is turning away from the SNP and the Prime Minister will use it to delay an independence referendum, the aim being to kick it in to the long grass until after the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021.

Can the Tory tide be turned before the election? By the time this edition goes to print you will be in a better position to make a judgement. After the first week of campaigning the opinion polls are looking a bit better, although the Tories are still well ahead, mainly due to a collapse in the UKIP vote. In England and Wales, the Tories will want to keep the narrative focused as much as they can on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. This will also suit the Liberals whose policy of another referendum after the negotiations will attract the support of many who voted to remain.

Brexit has moved Britain significantly to the right and Labour is caught between a rock and a hard place. But its equivocation on the issue has to end and it must give its vision for a post-EU settlement, emphasising the difference between Labour’s position and the Conservative version. Similarly, the SNP has a problem with the issue, with a third of Independence supporters voting for Brexit. But the Tories cannot spend the whole election campaign on Brexit. Nor can they use it as a dress rehearsal for any future Scottish referendum. These constitutional issues are of major importance, but elections are generally fought on the government’s record and the opposition’s policies. If the debate can be shifted on to normal campaigning ground, then Labour has a chance of winning back some lost support.

The Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence is based on bluff, bluster and downright lies. During their seven year watch to date, the economy has struggled while debt has increased by 50% greater than the debt left by Labour. Yet our public services have suffered from savage cuts with welfare and social security being systematically dismantled. The impact has meant soaring poverty with foodbanks becoming commonplace across the county. They have presided over the longest fall in living standards for over a century. Wages have been falling for a decade in real terms and are not forecast to rise for the foreseeable future. The number of zero-hours contracts is five times higher than it was in 2010. This track record should be an open goal for the opposition.

During the Easter recess, Labour captured the headlines with a series policy announcements that were highly popular with the public. A commitment to legislate for a £10 an hour minimum wage, free school meals for primary school children, nationalisation of the railways, and free university tuition all sent a message about the kind of society that Jeremy Corbyn wants to build. Other election promises to protect pensioner incomes with the ‘triple lock, banning zero hours contracts, aggressively taking on tax avoiders, and the creation of a National Investment Bank could prove to be vote winners and offer hope against further Tory austerity. These policies have to be presented and delivered in clear, sharp messages by Labour’s campaign team.

Corbyn’s personality will be the focus of much of the Tory attack, assisted by their loyal friends in the media. It would be foolish to deny the flaws of a decent and principled man who has faced extreme vilification and character assassination by the media and by his enemies within the Labour Party. However, he is much better facing the public than he is at the dispatch box being howled at by moronic Tory backbenchers. Theresa May is used to staying on message and repeating slogans, but finds it difficult to speak off the cuff. If she can be shamed into appearing on TV debates, Corbyn may be able to expose her and her Government’s weaknesses. The fact that she poses as a ‘strong leader’ but does not have the bottle to appear in a debate should be repeated throughout the campaign.

The election in Scotland is unlikely to feature Labour at all, save in one seat if Ian Murray can get enough tactical voters to stick with him. Despite the expected Tory gains of 6-10 seats, the SNP should predominate with mid 40s percent of the vote. In the long run, the polarisation between the Tories and the SNP will mean Labour supporters will have a choice to make. By declaring her party as the only trustworthy defender of the Union, and destroying her former anti-independence allies in the process, Ruth Davidson is playing a dangerous game. She will force Labour to question whether it has any future as a unionist party. And, if there is a UK Tory victory, with no prospect of another Labour Government in the foreseeable future, the outcome of the 2017 election could tip enough Labour voters towards independence and could prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the Union.

Pat Kelly is a former PCS union officer and member of the Scottish Left Review editorial committee