Labour's right to join the economic debate is under attack

Osborne's attempt to create a sense of equivalence between Fred Goodwin and Ed Balls is a threat to

George Osborne's speech had two distinct purposes. The first and most obvious was to show that the government is not complacent about the stagnating economy and the effect it is having. This he aimed to do with a rash of announcements, the most significant of which is surely the interest in "credit easing", by which the Treasury lends directly to firms. As my colleague George points out, this looks like a tacit admission that Project Merlin - the deal between government and the banks to increase the supply of private sector credit - is failing. It is worth adding that other devices that were meant to stimulate the economy by disbursing government cash, notably the regional growth fund, are also implicitly belittled by this move. The growth fund has yet to actually hand out any money.

The second of Osborne's tasks was to reinforce the coalition's central political message about Labour's responsibility for creating the crisis. This Osborne did with a sleight of rhetorical hand, embarking on what sounded like an attack on the bankers but blended seamlessly into an attack on the shadow chancellor. The aim is to create some sense of equivalence in people's minds between the dereliction of responsibility shown by the likes of Fred Goodwin at RBS and the fiscal management of the last government. It is a crude device but one that poses a big threat to Labour. Osborne doesn't want to beat the two Eds in an argument on the economy, he wants to trash their moral credentials to even participate in an argument about the economy.

Given how effective the Chancellor has already been in promoting his account of Labour profligacy as the prime cause of austerity, Miliband should be worried by this renewed assault on his entitlement to have a view. The argument Miliband made in his conference speech - that the Tories' economic analysis represents the last gasp of a failed model of irresponsible free market capitalism - requires a degree of historical and ideological perspective that many voters don't bring to bear when apportioning blame. Labour badly needs a sharper rebuttal.

One other point on Osborne's political calculations: The heavy emphasis on the failings in the eurozone was inevitable, but the tone, essentially blaming continental governments for creating the conditions that are now holding back the UK economy, was new. The Chancellor clearly felt the need to lash out at "Europe" in some way to appease the large numbers in his party who see the single currency crisis as an opportunity to renegotiate Britain's whole settlement with Brussels. But I sense another element to this argument. Osborne lavished praise on William Hague for his 2001 election campaign dedicated almost entirely to demands to "save the pound". The Tories lost by a landslide. Now that the euro is in dire trouble, Tory strategists are sensing an opportunity to salvage some credibility from their wilderness years. This isn't so much a eurosceptic argument as part of the Tory "decontamination" agenda. Osborne seems to be re-branding old political failures as a kind of foresight.

The Chancellor doesn't just want to monopolise economic argument in the present and future, he wants to rewrite the past too.

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

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide