If you wanted to write a spoof of Britain’s Conservatives, you’d struggle to do a better job than the real version at the party’s half-empty annual conference this week in Manchester.
Things hit such train-wreck levels that even the stage fell apart — during a speech by Prime Minister Theresa May, the Conservatives’ leader, letters fell off the party’s latest lackluster slogan behind her. That was just the final slapstick touch to a disastrous address, during which Mrs. May struggled with a fading voice and a spluttering cough, and was pranked by a comedian who handed her a fake P45 — a termination of employment notice.
It was a fitting close to a conference that highlighted the extent to which the Conservatives are in free-fall, and the degree to which Mrs. May’s days as party leader are numbered.
That all stood in stark contrast to Labour’s conference at the seaside town of Brighton a week earlier. There, party leaders were met with rock-star receptions and standing ovations. Packed meetings focused on the policies Labour should first roll out in government, while references to the party leader Jeremy Corbyn as “the next prime minister” sounded not just like peppy campaign talk but a tangible scenario. Events organized through Momentum, the grass-roots group of Corbyn supporters, routinely saw snaking queues. Left-wing politics had the buzz of a music festival and the effervescence of a political force that is tantalizingly close to power.
This state of affairs isn’t just down to Labour’s surge during the snap election in June, when the party unexpectedly secured nearly 40 percent of the vote with a hope-filled, progressive platform under Mr. Corbyn’s leadership. The Conservatives are in chaos, having lost their majority and mandate in the election, which Mrs. May needlessly called and then bungled. The party is a squabbling mess, divided over Brexit negotiations and riven by leadership battles. Mrs. May’s position is fatally compromised, but there is no viable replacement in sight, a toxic situation plunging a party once known for ruthless discipline into disarray.
Polls suggest that an election held today could put Labour in power — and make clear that voters are ready for the party’s vision of economic redistribution. All of this has put the Conservatives into a reactive crouch: witness the conference speech by the chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, dedicated to tirades against Labour’s economic plans, while Mrs. May tried, unconvincingly, to portray her party as concerned with social justice. The Conservatives are now trotting out policy proposals that look like halfhearted raids from the Labour platform — diluted versions that lack credibility.
Given all of this, Labour is busy ensuring it is taken seriously as a prospective government. That much is already starting to happen, as companies scrambled to attend the Labour conference and business representatives lined up to meet with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. As Mr. McDonnell laid out in a conference event, his team has met with “various people, asset managers and others, quietly and privately,” and also is looking at what might happen in the event of the party’s victory and “war gaming” possible scenarios, including a run on the pound or capital flight.
That revelation led to a few headlines screaming that even Labour thinks it will crash the economy — and cheap shots to that effect from the Conservatives. But it may just be sensible stress-testing, itself designed to allay concerns. As it turns out, while businesses predictably wince at Labour’s plans to increase corporate taxes, party advisers say many in the business sector welcome their commitment to investing in infrastructure, especially technology. Meanwhile, an added component potentially turning businesses toward Labour is the May government’s disastrous handling of Brexit, widely seen as likely to cause major economic damage.
But Labour’s plans to restructure the economy represent a break with a neoliberal consensus of the past 30 years. This shift does have popular support, yet it might conceivably face institutional resistance. Britain’s civil service, which has met with the Labour leadership and which is democratically committed to political neutrality, could respond to populist left policies with a technocratic disposition toward continuity and slow, incremental change. While shadow ministers, some of them relatively inexperienced, are being prepped in working the levers of government so as not to get bogged down by bureaucracy, Labour advisers say they are looking toward countries such as Denmark or Germany for advice on implementing progressive policies.
But a key emollient in all this needs to be popular buy-in. Mr. Corbyn’s stated intent to democratize Labour is already taking shape. The parliamentary party is now in a feedback loop with its grass-roots: unleashing thousands of enthusiastic campaigners at street level, while declaring that “another world is possible” from the party leader’s podium.
In Brighton, over a thousand delegates — many of them newly elected — decided which issues would be debated and saw measures that they approved on one day appear in the leader’s speech on the next. Mr. McDonnell suggested key policies such as re-nationalization could be planned in consultation with trade unions, civil society, consumers and local authorities — providing not just extra accountability, but also another layer of legitimacy.
Of course, none of this straightforward and expectations should be managed in preparation for the long haul. Labour’s conference, while jubilant, did not feel complacent, though that is something to guard against. So, too, will be the pressure on Labour to tone down the platform that has made it so popular in the first place. Meanwhile, the regressive forces that helped push the Brexit vote have not vanished and could be reanimated by the right.
Still, if Labour’s policies are, as Mr. Corbyn says, now “mainstream,” if the center ground has shifted, if the unfettered free market has at last been publicly nailed as the source of division and hardship, and if the Conservatives keep free-falling — well, then it looks like the British left, after decades in the fringes, may finally have its moment.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author.