David Blunkett: Put the people first in a country still divided by election

IT'S hard to believe that it is just a year ago since we experienced the most extraordinary General Election in modern times.

Theresa May at the count in her Maidenhead constitutency in the early hours of June 9, 2017, when she lost her Commons majority.

Extraordinary because it was unnecessary. Frankly it was a total shambles.

Not just that the Government managed to lose a majority that they’d won back in 2015, nor that they then ended up relying on the Democratic Unionist Party, but because single-handedly Theresa May helped Jeremy Corbyn to rehabilitate himself as a potential Prime Minister.

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I say helped because, of course, no opposition party could find itself losing a General Election and being 64 seats short of a majority and yet be able to present itself as having done extraordinarily well while showing little return to professional competence.

For that is what Jeremy Corbyn and those around him managed to achieve a year ago.

Remember, the county council elections in 2017 at the very beginning of May were disastrous for Labour. Worse in part than last month’s election results because of course these were in the rural hinterland, substantially already controlled by the Conservatives. But by the beginning of June, Labour had rehabilitated itself and won over 40 per cent of the popular vote in what became a two-party contest.

This is significant. The Greens were virtually annihilated, the Liberal Democrats in meltdown and Ukip actually melted away. In Scotland there was, of course, the SNP but even north of the border one of the wheels came off the SNP bandwagon.

All this is relevant one year on. Because Labour’s manifesto 12 months ago could only be described as a “retail offer”. What I mean by that, and I said so at the time, was that we promise just about everyone everything that those particular interest groups might espouse for themselves. Free tuition fees, universal free childcare, free school meals, nationalisation of the railways and a vague promise of red in tooth and nail socialism, but not quite yet.

Theresa May’s utter incompetence in running the General Election and the “miserableness” of the Tory message contrasted with the anti-austerity message which touched a nerve, tuned into the prevailing upsurge of anti-austerity feeling and was, frankly, at least offering some hope.

Mix all this in with the traumatic after-shock of the EU referendum, and two-party politics had returned to Britain at least temporarily.

What is extraordinary since then, and for any right-thinking centre or left-of-centre voter must be deeply frustrating, is the failure of the Labour leadership to substantially capitalise both on their relative success in 2017 and the utter disarray which sadly is detrimental to Britain, and constitutes the operation of our present government.

Spare a small thought for Theresa May. If you have Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and, intermittently, Michael Gove constantly undermining your efforts to pull together a post-referendum solution to Britain leaving Europe, you really are up against it.

Multiple departures from Cabinet over the last 12 months including the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, and the extraordinary recent silence (really extraordinary for a Yorkshireman) of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary. We now know why. He has been embroiled in yet another behind-the-scenes row with the Prime Minister and Britain is drifting.

The official Opposition should be at least 10 per cent points ahead in the opinion polls and the ever increasingly bizarre struggle within the Conservative Party should be seen for what it is – total self-indulgence.

For this is about the future of Britain, not just in relation to the negotiated arrangements post-Brexit – and after the transition period – but also the injection of a dynamic into the British economy and social life, which will be essential if we are to meet the challenge once we have finally left the European Union.

There is in essence a vacuum at the very heart of our politics. Neither the Government, more sadly for me at least, the official Opposition, are presenting really radical, forward-looking policies which live up to and show an appreciation of, the massive challenges in the decades ahead.

Traditional trade deals will still have to be done but they will pale into insignificance in relation to the transformation of the nature of work, to the introduction of robotics and the important part which artificial intelligence will play in reshaping our working lives.

The switch away from reliance on oil will have profound geo-political implications worldwide. Decisions about how to get a long-term grip of the social care of not only elders requiring support, but also those men and women with severe physical or learning disabilities and who so often get overlooked in the debate around social care.

And yes, a re-healing of our nation. Steps which would genuinely seek to heal the divide which the referendum exposed and which has led to the kind of edginess which bedevils our national conversation, and has exaggerated the debate around identity politics rather than about the very substantial challenges to the cosy complacency that it will “be all right on the night”.

So, a year on from the General Election, I despair at the lack of vision, and of basic statecraft, and yes, of simple competence, ranging from local government, through Westminster and on the international scene.

Putting the people first at every level has to come before petty squabbling, and internecine warfare or irrelevant tilting at windmills. You know what I mean, I know what I mean, and as my grandfather would have said “if the cap fits, wear it”!

Frankly, Britain deserves a lot better.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer. A former MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, he was Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s government.