Labour’s loss in Copeland shows we’re still living in Tory Brexit la la land

The EU referendum result allowed the Tory party to effectively win a landslide victory against itself. Instead of being viewed as an incumbent party with 6 years in office, they are instead being treated as a newly-elected government. This honeymoon undoubtedly helped the Tories win a seat in Labour’s backyard – but it may not last long.

It’s not surprising to hear many commentators hailing Labour’s loss of Copeland as an historic defeat and a portent of doom at the next election. Conventional wisdom says that by-elections are voters’ opportunity to lash out at incumbent governments. To see a so-called Labour safe seat change hands to the Tories after 6 years of Conservative rule is understandably worrying for the Labour camp. But in this post Brexit, post Trump world, so much pre-held political wisdom must now be considered obsolete.

For Britain, everything changed on the June 23rd 2016. With the resignation of David Cameron and the subsequent removal of almost his entire cabinet, the Tories effectively re-branded themselves as a new government – with Theresa May appointing her new cabinet of Brexiteers and behaving as if she’d just won a general election.

The Brexit vote was such a watershed moment for the Tories (and for the country), that the continuity that would normally happen when a leader hands over power to their successor (i.e. Blair/Brown) was simply not present.

To the general public, Theresa May and her government represent a brand new Government – marking a clean break with the Cameron ministry that preceded it. That they are in fact one and the same (with a new leader) is a technicality lost on the public. They perceive May and Co with the same sense of novelty and vigor normally only enjoyed by a party winning power after years spent in opposition.

In effect, the Brexit result allowed the Tory party to win a landslide victory against itself – and reap all the benefits (their showing in the polls and this by-election win certainly bears that out.)

There’s no doubt that at the next general election, the winning party will be the one deemed most able to manage and deliver Brexit. The Tories already have a huge advantage here, because in the eye’s of the public they own the issue of Brexit – it is as much their pet project as the NHS is for Labour. The figureheads of the leave campaign were all Tories (with the exception of Nigel Farage) and now some of the most fervent breixiteers (David Davies, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson) occupy senior cabinet positions.

But just as this Brexit rebirth has buoyed the Tories to heights not seen in decades, their self-assuredness may yet backfire. Their popularity stems from their clear message that we will be better off out of the EU than in it.

But the public’s view on what ‘better off’ really means may not match the eventual deal that the government delivers. For many leave voters, the leave campaign’s pledge to divert £350 million a week to the NHS was a strong argument for leaving. Even stronger was the pledge to significantly reduce immigration in the short term. The government are now saying that neither of these things may be deliverable.

Eurosceptic stalwarts like Daniel Hannan argue that these were never the core arguments for Brexit – and that ‘taking back control’ from Brussels and reclaiming our democratic independence were always the priorities. But this is a fantasy. While these may have been long held ambitions for some Tory backbenchers, there’s no doubt that without UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric, the question of EU membership would have remained a minor issue in the eyes of the public.

The period between the referendum result on June 28th 2016 and the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March 2017 may come to be seen as the ‘phoney war’ period of the whole Brexit saga. Until the Government’s ‘have our cake and eat it’ plan is put to the EU 27, there can be no certainty of the government achieving any of the aims it has spent the last 8 months filling the airwaves with. If things go sour, and leave voters feel they’ve been hoodwinked on the NHS and immigration promises, then this Tory fairytale that delivered them Copeland could well come to a sudden end.

If Jeremy Corbyn is serious about nuclear disarmament, he needs a strategy

Presented as an in/out choice, it’s unlikely the British electorate would vote to scrap nuclear weapons. This could be a thorny issue if it become a cornerstone policy of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party. But a proper strategy, with a timetable for downgrading the UK’s nuclear status could be a better way of winning the argument.

It’s now becoming clear that one of the key pieces of ammunition the Tories will use against Jeremy Corbyn (should he become Labour leader) is that his anti-nuclear weapons position is a threat to the UK’s security.

Much of the British public are resigned to the belief that nuclear weapons are a necessary evil – ensuring no enemy would ever dare attack us for fear of nuclear retaliation. This view persists as the status quo – regardless of the fact that nuclear weapons have been of little value in any British military conflict in the last 30 years.

A YouGov poll from 2013 found that only 29% of the public were in favour of scrapping nuclear weapons altogether. One reason the pro-nuclear view has taken hold so firmly, is because the possession of nuclear weapons is usually presented as an ultimatum – you either have them or you don’t. And as one of the five NATO nuclear-weapon states and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it’s long been taken as a given that the UK will always remain a nuclear-armed country.

However, there is another way this issue can be approached – one that specifically side-steps the in/out conundrum. Instead, a roadmap to British nuclear disarmament could be presented as a staggered, strategic process that could see the UK gradually downgrade its nuclear weapons status over a number of years.

A framework for this already exists (albeit in a patchwork fashion) within NATO. Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey are all part of NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing programme. Under this agreement, the United States loans weapons and launch equipment, but the equipment remains the property of the US. Considering Britain’s Trident missiles are already wholly manufactured by a US company (Lockheed Martin) and the nuclear warheads are co-manufactured by the USA and UK – this move to weapons sharing rather than weapons owning would not be as dramatic a shift as it sounds. Most importantly, it would be highly symbolic of Britain’s aspiration towards disarmament.

Germany’s participation in NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing programme is the most useful precedent though. The German reunification treaty of 1990 made it a permanent Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone. This means that the Germans take the weapons sharing relationship a step further than the other four members – with the German army being a non-nuclear force (US-loaned or otherwise). It does however, posses a number of weapons systems that could be adapted to deliver nuclear weapons. If war was declared and a decision was made, Germany could very quickly take delivery of nuclear weapons from another NATO state or even manufacture its own – Germany certainly possess the resources and technological expertise to do so.

The German scenario shows how Britain can continue to present itself as an effective part of NATO, even without nuclear weapons stored and armed on its soil. This ability to quickly go from non-nuclear to nuclear-armed in a relatively short space of time, would appease the more hawkish voices in Britain but still be a dramatic step away from the current status quo.

The above suggestions could seem like a big set of compromise to those fully committed to complete nuclear disarmament, but small steps in the right direction are better than no steps at all. And considering how entrenched in British minds this issue is, a complete overnight disarmament would never take hold with voters. But a strategic downgrading – first moving to a NATO weapons sharing arrangement, then to maintaining only launch systems (with no weapons) and finally a removal of the launch systems all together – represents the kind of journey the British public could conceivably take. And in this case, a slow journey is preferable to a quick ultimatum – especially when you know the answer will be no.

Why Jeremy Corbyn could win in 2020

Initially viewed by the right-wing establishment as a lefty dinosaur, Jeremy Corbyn’s unique appeal to both disgruntled former Labour voters and disengaged non-voters could deliver a Labour win in 2020 – especially when competing against a slim Tory majority.

Amongst all the criticism being thrown at Jeremy Corbyn by his detractors, the claim that he is ‘unelectable’ is perhaps the most significant one. The argument being that, while his politics and approach might go down well with the broad left (who have propelled him to the front of the pack in the Labour leadership contest), their numbers are still insignificant when compared to the voting population of Britain.

We are told that when ‘white van man’ and the rest of middle England are presented with this ‘scruffy socialist’ they’ll run a mile – straight into the waiting arms of the Conservatives.

It’s certainly true that Corbyn looks and sounds completely different to the politicians we’re used to seeing fronting a mainstream political party in Britain. And yet, we’re constantly reminded that the electorate are fed-up with career politicians, who all look and sound the same and speak in corporate jargon. Indeed, much of UKIP’s success has been down to Nigel Farage’s public persona – the ‘normal bloke down the pub’ image that he has successfully constructed (regardless of the fact that he’s actually a privately educated banker).

The main problem is that the media and the political establishment are still behaving as if the 2015 election was ‘business as usual’ for British politics – where Labour and the Tories compete to decide who will form a majority government. But that wasn’t the case – regardless of how much the Tories would like to believe that they won a landslide majority victory thanks to a resurgent wave of British Conservatism.

In reality, neither of those things happened in 2015. The Tories won a narrow majority of 12 seats, thanks primarily to the collapse of the Lib Dem vote (27 of the seats the Tories gained in 2015 came from the Lib Dems). Meanwhile Labour haemorrhaged seats in Scotland due to the SNP’s landmark victory.

The Lib Dem collapse and the SNP’s surge were the real stories of the 2015 election – take those two things out of the equation and you have an election result remarkably similar to the 2010 election (with a couple of losses for the Toires and a couple of gained seats for Labour). Meanwhile, two of the smaller parties received more votes than ever – UKIP got nearly 4 million votes and the Greens took over a million. Conversely, the Tories managed to win a Commons majority by getting only 24% of the electorate to vote for them.

If the 2015 election proved one thing, it’s that a significant number of the British electorate are more willing than ever to vote for an alternative – which, in 2015, manifested itself as support for UKIP, the Greens and the SNP.

Of course under first-past-the-post, it’s still incredibly difficult for these small parties to turn their votes into seats in parliament (UKIP’s millions of votes translated to a single seat). But if that outsider/man-of-the-people alternative suddenly finds itself as the leader of the opposition – the story is dramatically different.

Under Corbyn, Labour could win back disgruntled former Labour voters from the Greens, SNP and UKIP – people who abandoned Labour because it had become nothing but a watered down version of the Tories. That alone could net them a couple million more votes – enough to put Labour level with the Tories (who polled 11 million votes compared to Labour’s 9 million in 2015).

But winning back disgruntled former voters from smaller parties isn’t the only prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour party. He is also the is only the leader in years who stands a chance of engaging some of the 33% of the electorate who didn’t vote – those famously disengaged from politics.

This is both Corbyn’s secret weapon and the Tories biggest threat. If just a fifth of the people who didn’t vote in 2015 could be persuaded to vote Labour, that would be enough to not just draw level with the Tories but decisively beat them. Meanwhile, traditional Tory election strategy continues to deliberately ignore non-voters. Tory strategy operates on shoring up their vote with the key groups who traditionally come out and vote in large numbers while ignoring those who don’t.

With his appeal to both disgruntled former-Labour voters who left to smaller parties and traditionally disengaged non-voters, Corbyn finds himself in a unique position – a Labour leader who may be able to beat the Tories without having to pander to middle-England (at least not as much as previous Labour leaders).

That’s precisely why the right-wing establishment have now stopped treating Corbyn as a joke and are instead viewing him as a genuine threat. Undoubtedly their attack on him (should he become Labour leader) will be unparalleled – they will attempt to portray him as a Socialist terrorist, determined to burn Britain to the ground. And yet, the establishment’s war of words may end up falling on deaf ears, as (for once) the people with biggest say in the outcome of the 2020 election may not be the ones reading the Daily Mail, The Sun or The Telegraph – and for Corbyn that could be decisive.