Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
“Vote Tory, get Labour,” remarked Phillip Cunliffe, professor in International Conflict at the University of Kent and co-founder of The Full Brexit, commentating on the measures put in place by the UK government to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Over the last several months, Downing Street have announced a number of emergency measures that have been, or will soon be, put in place to help families and businesses make ends meet during this enduring period.
The Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised British citizens that the state will pay grants of up to £2,500 to workers, including those that are self-employed; effectively nationalising Britain’s wage bill. This is on top of the £12 billion, of spending outlined in February’s budget to boost NHS funding and protect companies from potential bankruptcy.
On the face of it, this is an unprecedented move by the Conservatives whose inclination has always been for free market corporativism and limited state intervention.
But in actuality, out of an episode beyond realisation less than a year ago, Boris Johnson has exposed the Tories as a party of political monopolisation. Not for the first time, the party appears to have stolen policy ideas from the Opposition benches in order to keep their grasp on the crisis at hand – and keep his new Conservative voters on his side.
It is not like nobody saw this coming. Just weeks after the Conservative ramped Westminster with its largest Commons majority since 1987 under Thatcher, the Prime Minister took the struggling Northern Rail back into public ownership – advocated by Jeremy Corbyn – who now sits on the backbenches – and his aides throughout the 2019 general election campaign.
Fast forward to where we are now, and the most recent fiscal measures to prop up economic demand could easily have been enacted by a ‘socialist’ Labour government.
For instance, mainstream commentariats laughed at Labour’s proposal to introduce free broadband. It was branded as ‘broadband communism’ during an interview on the BBC’s Politics Live with current Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey.
But as we have seen, COVID-19 has forced governments from across the globe to make extraordinary changes to the way society functions. In a deal struck by the government and telecommunications companies, data allowance caps have been scrapped because now more than ever it is perceived to be an essential tool.
Now, while we can place aside partisanship in the hope of connecting people technologically during isolation, the question remains that once this is over will we witness the return of the cap, and things return to normal? Certainly, that looks to be the case. But the sudden shift in viewing broadband as a “need-to-have” public utility is startling.
Pinching ideas like a comprehensive National Care Service right from Corbyn’s Labour manifesto, the Heath Secretary Matt Hancock managed to summon the help of 400,000 people to assist the NHS in helping those in most in need – most notably those over the age of 65. The scheme allows doctors, GPs, nurses, midwives, NHS 111, pharmacists, and social care staff to request help for at-risk patients via a call centre run by the Royal Voluntary Service.
“They will be driving medicines from pharmacies to patients; they will be bringing patients home from hospital; very importantly they will be making regular phone calls to check on and support people who are staying on their own at home,” Johnson told journalists at a Downing Street press conference.
Without a doubt, this universal entitlement is a clear rejection of the idea that the burden of social care should simply be pressed on to individuals. By uniting this grandeur in civic association, the Tories are recognising Labour’s plans in assuring voters that being cared for in times of need is a basic human right.
Labour, therefore, could be forgiven for thinking they no longer have a monopoly on their own ideas. As such, Jeremy Corbyn used one of his final interviews as Leader of the Opposition to affirm how he was “absolutely right” all along about public spending and that the Tories realised they had to “invest in the state” because they were “ill-prepared” to deal with problems that would come ahead – back then Brexit, now COVID-19. Whether or not that was true is a discussion for another occasion.
That is not to say that what we have ended up with amidst this disease is half-baked Corbynism. Far from it. It has not significantly popularised Labour, even under the new leader Sir Keir Starmer. Moreover, many of the enactments have been criticised for not going far enough. Millions who currently get little or no sick pay will not be able to afford to self-isolate, even with the social security net enacted by Whitehall.
What these policy decisions have done, is prove that it is easier for the Conservatives to move economically to the left than it is for Labour to move right of the spectrum. It is a strategy that has won Conservatives elections. Labour should be worried if it feels it is unable to capitalise.
It is all good proclaiming hypocrisy to be proven right, but this strategy alone will not win you elections. It did not work for Labour in 2010 when the Tories took the New Labour mantra of increase healthcare spending, nor in 2015 when then-Chancellor George Osborne pitched Ed Miliband’s idea of a National Infrastructure Commission. It certainly will not work now.