There has been much talk this week about what kind of Brexit deal the UK is going to be able to negotiate and what life outside the European Union will look like. It is the dominant political issue and it seems like the story will go on in perpetuity. But looking beyond Brexit, the party in power at the end of the negotiations and in the following years will have, to a large extent, a blank canvas; the opportunity to rewrite the political consensus and reset the ‘centre’ ground. It is a unique chance to decide the direction of British politics for the next political cycle, assuming the post-war consensus and Thatcherite consensus were the last two cycles.
The consensus is vital because it determines what is and is not acceptable within political debate. The consensus is where the goalposts are. Try and move outside of the current consensus, suggest something innovative and progressive but that does not fit the ‘norm’ as dictated by consensus thinking and face condemnation, personal attacks and the failure of your political ideas.
We are still living under the Thatcherite consensus. Privatisation is the word, greed is good, the state is bad, public services should be stripped back, welfare claimants are shirkers and liars and, God forbid, don’t try anything opposed by Rupert Murdoch or else face the reactionary, rabidly right-wing wrath of his poodles/attack dogs – the editors of his newspapers and kowtowing politicians. It is no coincidence that the Conservative and New Labour Governments that succeeded Thatcher strayed very little from her positions on major issues.
A strong Labour Opposition must develop over the next couple of years – one that is principled and credible, has popular policies and is electable. Without a strong Opposition the new political consensus will be determined by a Conservative Government dominated by triumphalist Brexiteers echoing UKIP sentiments without fear of reprisal – without fear of being held to account, challenged and potentially voted out. Before the country even has an opportunity to decide which party will be in power in 2020 the Tories will have the chance to start writing the new consensus. They cannot be given a free hand.
Do you trust May and her minions to write the new consensus? Do you trust them to create a stronger, ‘fairer’ – to select a word May continues to use with no hint of irony – Britain and the consensus that would underpin that?
Take a look at the voting records of the people in charge, their past political actions, their rhetoric and that of the newspapers pulling their strings before answering those questions.
An historical opposition to workers’ rights protected by the EU has been shown by most senior Conservative figures in the Cabinet. The noises coming from leading Conservatives and the right-wing press point towards tax cuts for corporations, deregulation and the undermining of workers’ rights in post-Brexit Britain.
These people and their ideas cannot be left to steer the country towards the deregulated, Daily Mail country they so desire.
But it is not just about workers’ rights, deregulation and allowing corporations to exploit the workers and the state system that allow them to generate such wealth. Everything is on the table. Take civil liberties. As Home Secretary, Theresa May’s record on civil liberties, which included trying to push through the most intrusive measures this country has ever seen, was extremely poor. The Snooper’s Charter was challenged by one of the last lines of defence: the European Court. With Amber Rudd as Home Secretary it has come into force. As technology becomes increasingly important in day-to-day life the views of these individuals towards our freedoms are crucially important.
And should we fear what the Conservative Government would do, given the chance, to our public services? This, of course, is a rhetorical question.
This Government cannot be allowed to set the tone for the next political cycle with a weakened commitment to civil liberties, an erosion of workers’ rights, a carte blanche for corporations, ever more privatisation, the stripping back of public services, and the creation of ‘bargain basement’ Britain.
The stakes are high. The Labour party must ask itself whether it enjoyed living under the Thatcherite consensus, whether it can stomach the consensus shifting even further to the right. A Conservative Government that believes it cannot lose the next election and will not be effectively challenged by the Opposition is a frightening prospect. When that Government is in a position to rewrite the political consensus and determine the direction of British politics for the next political cycle it becomes a petrifying prospect.