My colleagues and I are struggling to interest you and indeed ourselves in this listless election because questions about who will form the next government do not arise. Theresa May will form it. The only point of interest is how large her majority will be.
A Tory landslide will give the illusory impression that we have lived through a sea change. But the British will still be the same people on 9 June. The electorate will not return the Tories with a large, maybe vast, majority because May is responding to a national hunger for change.
I have no doubt that the Conservatives will take victory as a mandate to move ever further rightwards, but the truth remains that, rather than leading a new movement whose hour has come, the prime minister is rushing to the polls like a sneak thief running through an open door. She would never have risked an early election if Labour had competent leaders who had not alienated millions of voters.
Condemning her opportunism is babyish. In politics, as in every other competitive field, players take advantage of their opponents’ mistakes. Rather than complain, the Conservatives’ opponents ought to ask themselves an urgent question. Not who will form the next government, but who will form the next opposition?
After gifting the Tories a majority it might take two or more elections to overturn, most assume that Jeremy Corbyn must resign. Defeat would have a purifying effect and a new opposition would be born from the ruins. Freed from the grip of yesterday’s men, it could begin the gruelling task of constructing a coalition that could hold ministers to account during the hard years ahead and develop a strategy to win in 2022 or 2027.
This is the normal way in democracies. In the midst of death, there is life. The defeated leader puts the good of the party and country first and accepts he must get out of the way. (Incidentally, the leader is always a “he” in the “progressive” Labour party. It might be in less trouble if it allowed the stodge to be leavened with the occasional “she”.)
But the treatment of dissent by the Corbyn-supporting Unite union tells me what I already knew: the far left will never willingly let go of the Labour party, however loudly the electorate tells it to leave. The normal way of democracies is not the far left’s way. Why should it be, when the far left never believed in democracy to begin with? In normal democratic countries and organisations, victors do not crush opponents and deprive them of their livelihoods for daring to run in an election. They do not warn anyone who might be watching that they will face the same treatment if they challenge the all-powerful leadership. For taking on Unite’s Len McCluskey, Gerard Coyne has been suspended from his job as Unite’s organiser in the West Midlands. He has been put on a disciplinary charge and banned from union meetings. He may be out of work within a few weeks.
I cannot say with certainty what the charges are. Like the worst-managed multinational corporations, Unite will use it against Coyne in his disciplinary hearing if he speaks to the press or public. But here is what I have been able to find out. In his election address to members, Coyne described how Unite had used the subs of poorly paid members to help buy a flat for McCluskey near London’s fashionable Borough Market. “Just last year, Unite put £417,000 of your money into a luxury apartment for his personal uses. None of this can be justified. It is a scandal that we pay our general secretary a big salary and then give him even more money to buy property.”
Unite tried to claim to its members that Coyne was not telling the truth. As he was telling the truth and nothing but the truth, Coyne threatened to call in the lawyers to stop McCluskey’s supporters interfering with his election address. Unite backed down. But the allegation that he brought the union into disrepute by discussing its sweetheart deals was not forgotten and is being used against him today.
There are other allegations about misusing union data. I am told that the best way to understand their seriousness is to think of that old Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch in which a racist police officer explains he has arrested a black suspect for “loitering with intent to use a pedestrian crossing” and “being caught in possession of curly black hair and thick lips”.
Better to throw any nonsense at a challenger than nothing at all. Better to teach opponents that they will not just be beaten but crushed than shake their hands and thank them for keeping democratic politics alive.
A writer sniffing for parallels could turn the authoritarianism of a declining union into a grander theme. Theresa May refuses to take part in television debates. May and Corbyn accept few or no questions from the press at their staged events. They speak when they can in front of audiences of bovine party loyalists.
The notion that democratic politicians must submit themselves to questioning from press and public is dying in Britain. We have a generation of paranoid leaders, delivered to the electorate in packages stuffed with cotton wool.
A writer looking for proof of a global malaise could say that everywhere autocrats are winning the McCluskey way. The Daily Mail’s headline that the government must “crush the saboteurs” shows that the instincts and language of Stalinism are as alive on Theresa May’s right as Len McCluskey’s left.
In Trump’s America, Erdoğan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia, opponents are the “enemies of the people”, the truth is “fake news” and inquiring journalists must always have a corrupt “agenda”. Everywhere, dissenting voices are silenced by a drum beat of threats.
But let me go from the grand to the trivial and stick with what’s left of the British left. Corbyn won’t do the decent thing and resign any more than McCluskey would do the decent thing and shake his opponent’s hand. The far left has waited 110 years to gain control of the Labour. It will not let a little thing like a Tory landslide weaken its grip.
The hidden question this election ought to settle is – can Britain now have an effective opposition? My fear is that the answer will be that we cannot. An opportunist election by a sneaky prime minister will by default become a sea change that will transform Britain forever and for the worse.