The Politics of Nostalgia

As we reach the half way point between 18 April, the day UK prime minister Theresa May called the general election, and the day of the poll itself on 8 June, it would be fair to say that the various party campaigns have yet to really come to life.  The parties have only very recently begun outlining their policies in any detail, and the campaigning has so far mostly failed to rise much above sound-bites and desultory insults.  Indeed the electorate give every impression of being largely disinterested, if not actively bored with politics and politicians – and given that this is the third time (and for Scots, the fourth) in under three years that they have been asked to vote in a national poll, their ennui is both understandable and forgivable.

But if the campaigns so far are lacklustre in the extreme, it does not mean they are totally without any points of interest.  And what stands out is how much the UK political class, almost without exception, prefers to look back to some imagined happier past than forward into what most people expect to be a more difficult future.

This is most obviously the case with the Labour Party, whose leadership seem determined to turn the clock back to the 1970s.  Their manifesto is full of policies to tax the rich, nationalise major parts of the economy, protect and promote the union movement, undo the labour market reforms of the past 30 years, and so on.  It is a programme replete with nostalgia.

This should not come as a surprise.  They are policies that Jeremy Corbyn has consistently espoused for his entire political career, and nothing about his approach to politics has ever suggested that he is prepared to compromise his beliefs in order to win power.  For him and his supporters, it is more important to have an ideologically pure Labour Party under their control – a control they are steadily tightening and which the election, and likely loss of large numbers of more moderate Labour MPs from the House of Commons, may further enhance.

For the true believers there is a coherence and a purity in the hard socialist message, but the blunt fact is that no party has won an election in the UK on this sort of manifesto for well over 40 years (the last Labour leader to do so was Harold Wilson in 1974), and all the signs are that this long losing streak is most unlikely to be ended next month.

Nevertheless, it is a strategy that is not without some sense, given the UK’s in effect two party system of government with power alternating between the Conservatives and Labour.  Provided the system holds, then the Left only need keep tight hold of the Labour Party and “await their turn”.  Certainly the alternative, of a Labour Party that moves so far towards the centre ground to appeal to the mass electorate (as it did under Tony Blair) that when it wins power it is not really socialist at all, carries little appeal for today’s Labour leadership.

But the two party nature of British political power, and the inevitability of the eventual swing of the pendulum back to Labour for which the Left is seemingly prepared to wait, is not guaranteed.  Labour should not forget that the duopoly that is British politics can be broken if a party sinks too low in public esteem, as the Liberals found to their cost after the First World War, and if the party falls too far below 200 MPs – to 150 or even lower, say – it may struggle to survive as a plausible alternative government in waiting.

But if the stance of the Labour Party leadership is both largely as expected and understandable, it is the stance of the Conservatives, and in particular the personal stance of Theresa May, that should cause the electorate some surprise and even concern.  For if Jeremy Corbyn seems to wants to return the UK to the 1970s, Theresa May is apparently hankering after the 1950s.

One learns most about a politician’s beliefs not from what they have to do, but from what they do not have to do but nevertheless still choose to.  Mrs May has perforce to manage the UK’s departure from the EU – whether or not this is what she would in her ideal world choose to spend a large part of the next few years doing, she has no option, and our own view, as we have expressed in various essays over the last 9 months or so, is that she also has very little freedom to choose the style of Brexit she will be pursuing.

But it is in the other parts of the Conservative manifesto, where she has a freer hand, that one learns more about Mrs May.  So far the parts of Conservative policy most identified with her personally are a fixation with limiting net immigration (which is both hard to understand and almost certainly doomed to failure, and increasingly one begins to suspect only maintained because she is not able to admit defeat on a policy she championed as Home Secretary), a desire to turn the clock back on grammar schools (which has very little support in the country at large, and is probably mainly indicative of the fact that she has no other ideas for how to improve state education), a populist attempt to fix energy prices (which is about as far from traditional market conservatism as one can get – it is only there to win a few more votes) and a plan to offer a free vote on the hunting ban (which reopens an issue that the country largely thought settled and which appears to be base dog-whistle politics from a prime minister who should not need to whistle for the dog – it has nowhere else to go, no-one else to follow).

Given that Mrs May is, in all probability, about to enjoy a large majority and, domestically at least, a position of considerable power and freedom perhaps on a par with that enjoyed by Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher or Clement Attlee at their height, this is an uninspiring list of personal preferences.  The theme running through all of them is that they are small-detail, backward-looking issues, revisiting arguments of the past rather than tackling the issues of the present.  They are worthy of a secretary of state at one of the lesser departments perhaps, but hardly the stuff of a prime minister’s agenda, let alone one who expects to be without serious opposition.

And yet there are some very large issues facing the UK which could exercise a prime ministerial mind.  But the electorate will look in vain for Mrs May’s views on the reform and refinancing of the NHS, which everyone knows is needed[1], or her plan for defence, which is underfunded and under-resourced, or how the country will maintain its electricity generating capability as older power stations are decommissioned and capacity dwindles, or, perhaps most importantly of all, how to achieve the triple rebalancing of the economy away from over-centralisation on London, over-concentration on financial services and over-reliance on consumer spending to keep the economy growing.

A psychologist would understand the thinking driving Mrs May’s revealed preferences.  The UK faces a period of great uncertainty but also great opportunity to effect significant change, but rather than embracing the opportunities to shape the future that her expected large majority would give her, as for example Mr Blair, Mrs Thatcher and Mr Attlee did, her agenda seeks to return to the comfort of a more stable, less complicated past.  And the concern is that this is the agenda of someone not just lacking in vision but also perhaps lacking in confidence, as if she is only now realising the weight of responsibility that is about to fall on her, and is not sure how to bear it.

Mrs May has promised “strong and stable government” and has asked for a large mandate to enable her to provide it.  The electorate is very probably going to give it to her, but in exchange is entitled to ask her back “Given the many major issues facing the country, if we give you this mandate, what exactly are you going to do with it?”


[1]               A small but telling insight into the state of the NHS’s equipment is that their computer systems, so badly affected by the recent ransomware attack, were revealed to be largely still running on Windows xp, which was introduced in 2001 and superseded by Microsoft’s next operating system some ten years ago.