Jeremy Corbyn has never been very keen on parliamentary democracy. He may be changing his mind now. The British electoral system has allowed him to strip the Conservatives of their majority, an extraordinary result that not even he had thought possible. As a reward, he can watch the government squirm as well as shape its policy. All he needs to do is threaten a vote which Theresa May thinks she might lose, and she buckles — as we are now witnessing.
For some time, the Prime Minister had stood firm on the public sector pay cap, arguing that when you factor in generous pensions, the average government worker is still paid 10 per cent more than their private sector counterpart. But the Tories have lost the argument on this and now fear they’d lose a vote if they stuck to their guns. Backbench Conservative MPs are nervous of the political traction which it might give Corbyn if they voted for the pay freeze now. So the government is lifting the 1 per cent cap for police and prison officers.
What they should have done was abolish nationwide pay settlements altogether, and allowed flexible pay adjusted to local living costs. A bold Tory government might have done so; this one looks set to dance to a tune called by its opponents.
The next step will be rowing back a little bit further on what had, for the incoming Cameron administration in 2010, been the government’s defining purpose: balancing the books. In lifting the 1 per cent cap on public sector pay for police and prison officers, Theresa May has condemned the Chancellor yet again to put off the great day when the British government lives within its means. Ten years after the crash, the national debt is still rising by £47 billion a year — or £5,000 by the time you finish reading this sentence. While the government says the pay rises must come out of existing budgets, it is difficult to see how public sector spending will be contained. Now the cap has been breached, there will be unbearable pressure from other groups of workers, such as nurses and teachers, to ditch it altogether.
This week we heard Len McCluskey threatening to co-ordinate illegal strikes — a suggestion that until the recent past would have rebounded badly on Labour. But half the electorate now has no memory of the Winter of Discontent or the miners’ strike. Irresponsible unions feature low down the list of priorities for younger voters, if they feature at all. So McCluskey can compare himself to Nelson Mandela defying an unjust law. When Labour failed to condemn him, no one really minded.
Similarly, the government seems ready to cave in on what seemed until this week to be its robust position on student loans. Ministers are said to be reviewing the 6 per cent interest rate on loans. It is hard to believe that this policy is a result of anything other than fear of Jeremy Corbyn and his remarkable popularity with the under-40s.
Reducing interest rates on the repayment of student loans would be a regressive move that would really only help the most successful graduates. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, only a quarter of graduates will clear their debt before the 30-year deadline, after which all student debts are written off. A lower interest rate will save money only for this richest quarter of graduates — those who pay off their loans more quickly — while having no effect whatsoever on relieving the finances of the rest.
The Tories have not won a convincing election victory for 30 years now, and these decades of drift seem to have damaged the party’s self-confidence. Even when Theresa May was expecting a landslide, she filled her manifesto with bad ideas left over from Ed Miliband’s disastrous tenure of the Labour party. She promised that her government would not ‘drift to the right’. It was as if she thought the right is wrong.
The race audit that Mrs May is due to release in the next few weeks will likely show the Conservatives again adopting the agenda of their opponents. Britain is one of the best countries in Europe in which to be young, gifted and black — the achievements of ethnic minority pupils in schools and universities encapsulate what Michael Howard called the ‘British dream’. The Tories should have adopted his message of optimism and opportunity. But there are more votes in adopting a negative message, in claiming the system is rigged against ethnic minorities. David Cameron should never be forgiven for telling black children that they are more likely to end up in prison than a good university. As Munira Mirza says this week, the Tories risk sending a false message of despair — and all in pursuit of narrow political gain.
There was a time, soon after the general election, when Jeremy Corbyn fantasised that he would be prime minister within six months. That prospect has receded a little, but it is still a very real possibility. If the government begins to lose votes on Brexit, as it briefly seemed that it might do over the EU withdrawal bill this week, it could fail to survive the autumn. But if Corbyn’s ideas continue to sneak into Conservative policy, it might be asked whether Labour’s seemingly absurd claim that he was the ‘real winner’ of the June election has come true.
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