Labour and Tories are both led by career politicians – but the label can hurt Ed more than Dave

Miliband is running out of time to inspire people with more than just a feeling that he has noticed how expensive life has become.

The differences between David Cameron and Ed Miliband are vast enough to obscure the one thing they have in common. They both went into politics because it seemed like a natural thing to do – a feature that also distinguishes them from most of the population.

Both men are products of rarefied social spheres that made a career in Westminster obvious and available. Cameron, Eton-educated and aristocratically connected, became a Conservative. Miliband’s upbringing at the top table of north London’s Marxist intelligentsia propelled him in the opposite direction. Talent explains their subsequent progress but neither man set off on a path marked by resistance.

For Labour, the comparison is abhorrent. Viewed from the left, there can be no moral equivalence between Cameron exercising the ruling prerogative of his class and Miliband answering the vocation of his secular creed. This righteous indignation has been amplified by Nelson Mandela’s death. For a Labour generation that grew up in the 1980s campaigning against apartheid, today’s veneration of the late ANC leader lends a retrospective moral victory to a decade of political defeat for the left. Margaret Thatcher won all the domestic battles but she was wrong about South Africa. While the Tories were making excuses for white supremacists, Miliband was meeting heroes of the Struggle at his parents’ dinner table.

Cameron was sensitive enough to this blot on the Conservative record to apologise for it in 2006, which confirms that the “modernising” instincts of his early years as leader were sounder than many in his party now suppose. Few voters choose a party for its historic stance on African liberation movements but Cameron understood that support for Mandela had entered British culture as a badge of transcendent values at a time when the Tories were disliked for understanding only material costs.

Now, in abandoning modernisation, he has chosen to concentrate on what seems like good short-term politics – winning the game at Westminster – at the expense of explaining how he thinks politics itself can be good.

That case badly needs making. This week MPs’ tributes to a man who embodied politics as self-sacrifice ran concurrent to a less edifying debate about their own status as salaried professionals. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) thinks an 11 per cent pay rise is in order. Plenty of backbenchers silently agree but their leaders cannot acquiesce at a time when politicians are reviled and everyone else on the public payroll has seen their wages cut or frozen. Cameron has a neat formula for making it clear that MPs are not immune to austerity – “the cost of politics should go down”.

No one wants to be governed by people who are only in it for the money but very few British politicians are. The greater problem is how many of them get into it without experience of doing anything else. In that respect, the differences between Cameron’s and Miliband’s backgrounds are smaller than the career politician label that unites them. Voters might be more receptive to the case for well-paid politics if they thought they were getting a more representative set of recruits for their money. Labour does better than the Tories or Lib Dems on that front but the advantage is slight. Conservatives suffer from their image as a club for the moneyed elite but Miliband’s party is judged to be exclusive in a different way – more a talking shop for do-gooders than a mass movement for working people. The polling agency Britain Thinks recently asked swing voters to imagine a “Mr Labour” figure at a party. They described a shy vegetarian, sorting through the CDs without choosing the music. “Mr Conservative” was brash and arrogant, in an expensive suit, drinking champagne.

Downing Street thinks Mr Conservative has the edge over Mr Labour in one vital aspect – people don’t elect a prime minister to be their friend. The Tories think voters can be swayed by the view that their hard-headed policies rescued the economy and that all gains would be squandered by their weak-willed opponents.

Miliband has scored points with his campaign on the cost of living, playing to Labour’s strength as the party that voters rate higher when asked who better “understands ordinary people”. He still faces doubt, including in his own party, that this empathy is the basis for credible government. The Labour leader’s inner circle has a clear sense of his “One Nation” project as a vision for weaving social justice into the fabric of economic policy. Most Labour MPs are much hazier about what it means in practice. One Milibandite frontbencher estimates that only 10 to 20 per cent of his parliamentary colleagues could easily articulate their leader’s philosophy.

That is a higher proportion than the number of Conservatives who could tell you what Cameron believes. The difference is that the Tory leader seems content to lack vision as long as people think he has a grip. He calculates that voters who despise all politicians will choose a party that shrinks government to fit meagre resources over one that has noble intentions and no way to pay for them.

The Labour leader’s friends say he aims to do much more than tinker at the margins of a dysfunctional economy. He wants to be a great moral reformer but he is running out of time to inspire people with more than just a feeling that he has noticed how expensive life has become.

In an election fought on making numbers add up, Mr Conservative has the advantage of looking like an accountant. Mr Labour’s big heart may not help him much more than his vintage “Free Nelson Mandela” T-shirt. Cameron is comfortable arguing that the cost of politics must come down. Miliband has the harder task of arguing that the value of politics needs to go up.

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband stand together as Prince Charles, Prince of Wales launches a new youth campaign at Buckingham Palace on November 21, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.