With no opposition, the Tories can do what they like

2730Observer 26 December, 2016


When you lose, you hand the ability to shape the future to your opponents. When you lose as badly as the British left has lost and is continuing to lose, you cease to matter.

If, instead of Labour, the Conservatives had lost the last election, obituarists would have mentioned the role of food banks in their defeat. Food banks were to the Great Recession what hunger marches were to the Great Depression, a symbol of a society gone rotten. Labour denounced them as an affront to the conscience of the nation. Coronation Street included them in its storylines. Russell Brand rolled into one just before an appearance on Question Time. “I visited partly to learn about it, as a researcher told me there might be questions on them and first-hand knowledge would make me look good,” the Guevara of our age explained, “and partly because, y’know, I actually care.”

But it is not enough, y’know, to actually care. If you want to change the world or just nudge it in the right direction, you have to win or at least be an opposition that can keep the government in a healthy state of fear by looking as if you might win.

No such opposition exists in England. The Liberal Democrats collapsed at the election, and their prone body shows barely a flicker of a pulse. Labour tried to win in May with a mistrusted leader and topped that ignoble achievement by allowing men who make Russell Brand look like a credible prime minister to take his place.

David Cameron and George Osborne would never have gone to Rupert Murdoch’s Christmas party if a viable alternative to their rule threatened them. After the hacking scandal and the jailing of the prime minister’s Murdoch-trained houseboy, it would have been too politically dangerous to be seen in his company. Who will make them pay a political price today? Jeremy Corbyn? Tim Farron? For as far ahead as anyone can see, the only constraints on the Conservative party are the constraints it chooses to impose on itself.

As for food banks, they seem unlikely to stir the nation’s sleeping conscience now. “I don’t want to say that poverty has become acceptable,” Chris Mould, the chairman of the Trussell Trust, told me, “but it has become accepted.” The notion that you could stop desperate people needing to visit the trust’s network of church halls and warehouses receded with Labour’s election defeat and disappeared into the land of make-believe with Corbyn’s victory.

It is not that the suffering has gone. About 50,000 Trussell Trust volunteers stand in the entrances of supermarkets asking for food that won’t perish: tinned vegetables and soups, cereals, eggs and pasta. A door-to-door appeal in early December collected rations for 3.7 million meals, a figure that should silence the miserabilist lament that the true spirit of Christmas is dead.

More people than ever use food banks, and not just for the meals they provide, but for the debt and careers advice volunteers now offer. I do not mean to diminish their work when I say the pity of it all is that food banks have become a part of everyday life. They are as familiar now as Big Issue sellers, rather than an aberration a confident centre-left could consign to the history books.

Familiarity does not only breed contempt. It breeds submission. The capacity to feel shock dissolves as time turns the outrageous into the commonplace. The politics of the Conservative party now dominate the politics of England. When the opposition descends into the unforgivably frivolous poses of infantile leftism, those who need help most are at the mercy of the only political force left standing.

The poverty that leads to hunger is as much the result of the incompetence and malice of Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions as economic circumstances. The Trussell Trust told me it won’t even meet to discuss small, practical measures to help people through hard times. Instead of listening, Duncan Smith damns the charity for “scaremongering”. The ignorant man does not understand that there is much to be scared about.

The case for the prosecution includes the undisputed fact that his department is so routinely mendacious the government’s own statistics watchdog denounces its figures. The sanctions it imposes on claimants are not only justifiable punishments for shirkers, but cudgels to drive the sick and the unfortunate off benefits. To take one from a battery of stories of habitual cruelty; in March 2014, the last month for which data is available, 4,500 people, judged as unfit to work because of long-term mental illness, nonetheless had their sickness and disability benefit removed.

The department has a proper policy of stopping fraudulent overpayments. No similar sense of urgency is evident when its delays and confusions lead to the underpayment of the needy. As MPs noted just before Christmas, administrative failings were causing families to go hungry and putting their homes at risk.

The Tory leadership may fire Duncan Smith, when and if the European referendum is out of the way, and it no longer needs to appease the Tory right. David Cameron and his likely successors George Osborne and Boris Johnson are clever politicians. They want to dominate the centre ground and squeeze the space in which a convincing opposition can flourish. If they need to abandon cuts to tax credits to protect their hegemony, they will. If they decide that Duncan Smith is a liability, they will sack him. But the point, I must re-emphasise, is that they will do so for their own reasons. No opposition will force change, because no opposition worthy of the name exists.

Blanche du Bois’s line from the final scene of A Streetcar Named Desire has passed into cliche. Too often, the bitter circumstances in which it is uttered are forgotten. Her husband has committed suicide, her brother-in-law has raped her, her reputation has been destroyed. As the wrecked belle lies on the floor, an apparently kind man offers her his hand. Blanche takes it, not realising that he is a doctor who will incarcerate her in an asylum, and sighs: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

The condition of England now depends on the kindness of Tories. How bitter the experience turns out to be is a matter for Tories and Tories alone.