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19 September 2017 00:00:00 AM Breaking News

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The middle has fallen out of British politics

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Today Britain finds itself in a different era. The vote for Brexit has committed it to leaving its biggest trading partner and snuggling closer to others, including a less-welcoming America. The economy has held up better than many feared but growth is slowing; investors are jittery. The union is fraying again. Real wages have stagnated. Public services are stretched.

Political parties have responded in radically different ways. All have replaced their leaders. Jeremy Corbyn has taken Labour to the loony left, proposing the heaviest tax burden since the second world war. The Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, promises a hard exit from the EU. The Liberal Democrats would go for a soft version, or even reverse it.

The party leaders could hardly differ more in their style and beliefs. And yet a thread links the two possible winners of this election. Though they sit on different points of the left-right spectrum, the Tory and Labour leaders are united in their desire to pull up Britain’s drawbridge to the world. Both Mrs May and Mr Corbyn would each in their own way step back from the ideas that have made Britain prosper—its free markets, open borders and internationalism. They would junk a political settlement that has lasted for nearly 40 years and influenced a generation of Western governments (see article). Whether left or right prevails, the loser will be liberalism.

Labour, the conservative party

Mr Corbyn poses as a radical but is the most conservative—and the most dangerous—candidate of the lot. He wants to take the railways, water and postal service back into public ownership. He would resurrect collective pay-bargaining and raise the minimum wage to the point where 60% of young workers’ salaries are set by the state. His tax plan takes aim at high earners and firms, who would behave in ways his costings ignore. University would be free, as it was until the 1990s—a vast subsidy for the middle class and a blow to the poor, more of whom have enrolled since tuition fees helped create more places.

On Brexit, Labour sounds softer than the Tories but its policy comes to much the same. It would end free movement of people, precluding membership of the single market. Mr Corbyn is more relaxed than Mrs May about migration, which might open the door to a slightly better deal on trade. But his lifelong opposition to globalisation hardly makes him the man to negotiate one.

No economic liberal, Mr Corbyn does not much value personal freedom either. An avowed human-rights campaigner, he has embraced left-wing tyrants such as Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro (a “champion of social justice”), who locked up opponents and muzzled the press. Mr Corbyn has spent a career claiming to stand for the oppressed while backing oppressors.


Candidate of nowhere

The Tories would be much better than Labour. But they, too, would raise the drawbridge. Mrs May plans to leave the EU’s single market, once cherished by Tories as one of Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievements. Worse, she insists on cutting net migration by nearly two-thirds. Brexit will make this grimly easier, since Britain will offer fewer and worse jobs. Even then, she will not meet the target without starving the economy of the skills it needs to prosper—something she ought to know, having missed it for six years as home secretary.

Her illiberal instincts go beyond her suspicion of globally footloose “citizens of nowhere”. Like Mr Corbyn she proposes new rights for workers, without considering that it would make firms less likely to hire them in the first place. She wants to make it harder for foreign companies to buy British ones. Her woolly “industrial strategy” seems to involve picking favoured industries and firms, as when unspecified “support and assurances” were given to Nissan after the carmaker threatened to leave Britain after Brexit. She has even adopted Labour’s “Marxist” policy of energy-price caps.

And though she is in a different class from Mr Corbyn, there are also doubts about her leadership. She wanted the election campaign to establish her as a “strong and stable” prime minister. It has done the opposite. In January we called her “Theresa Maybe” for her indecisiveness. Now the centrepiece of her manifesto, a plan to make the elderly pay more for social care, was reversed after just four days. Much else is vague: she leaves the door open to tax increases, without setting out a policy. She relies on a closed circle of advisers with an insular outlook and little sense of how the economy works. It does not bode well for the Brexit talks. A campaign meant to cement her authority feels like one in which she has been found out.

It is a dismal choice for this newspaper, which sees little evidence of our classical, free-market liberal values in either of the main parties. We believe that, as it leaves the EU, Britain should remain open: to business, investment and people. Brexit will do least damage if seen as an embrace of the wider world, not simply a rejection of Europe. We want a government that maintains the closest ties with the EU while honouring the referendum, and that uses Brexit to reassert the freedom of Britain’s markets and society—the better to keep dynamic firms and talented people around. In their different ways, both Labour and the Tories fail this test.

No party passes with flying colours. But the closest is the Liberal Democrats. Brexit is the main task of the next government and they want membership of the single market and free movement. (Their second referendum would probably come to nothing, as most voters are reconciled to leaving the EU.) They are more honest than the Tories about the need to raise taxes for public services; and more sensible than Labour, spreading the burden rather than leaning only on high-earners. Unlike Labour they would reverse the Tories’ most regressive welfare cuts. They are on the right side of other issues: for devolution of power from London, reform of the voting system and the House of Lords, and regulation of markets for drugs and sex.

Like the other parties, they want to fiddle with markets by, say, giving tenants first dibs on buying their property. Their environmentalism is sometimes knee-jerk, as in their opposition to new runways and fracking. The true liberals in the party jostle with left-wingers, including Tim Farron, who is leading them to a dreadful result. But against a backward-looking Labour Party and an inward-looking Tory party about to compound its historic mistake over Brexit, they get our vote.

Backing the open, free-market centre is not just directed towards this election. We know that this year the Lib Dems are going nowhere. But the whirlwind unleashed by Brexit is unpredictable. Labour has been on the brink of breaking up since Mr Corbyn took over. If Mrs May polls badly or messes up Brexit, the Tories may split, too. Many moderate Conservative and Labour MPs could join a new liberal centre party—just as parts of the left and right have recently in France. So consider a vote for the Lib Dems as a down-payment for the future. Our hope is that they become one element of a party of the radical centre, essential for a thriving, prosperous Britain.

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