Cameron's East Germany comparison was absurd and offensive

The Prime Minister's Tea Party-esque caricatures are a substitute for real debate.

In her 2003 book Stasiland, Anna Funder documents what life was like for millions of people in East Germany, the inaptly named German Democratic Republic, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She describes the way the Stasi kept control by spying on people, recruiting half a million people to spy on their neighbours or members of their own families, tapping phones, generating files on their fellow citizens which, laid upright end to end, would have formed a line 180 kilometres long.

In East Germany, political prisoners were jailed. People who attempted to leave were arrested, or even shot as they crossed the border. East Germans voted by approving the only name on the ballot paper, or by putting a line through it. Those who chose not to support the approved candidate - the ballot was not secret - could lose their job or be expelled from university, and would come under close surveillance from the Stasi.

You might think that, whatever arguments and differences British politicians have with each other, we can all agree that nobody wants to change our open, democratic society into anything like East Germany. We have our arguments in public, we campaign for support, we win or we lose and we argue again.

Yet in describing Ed Miliband's superb speech to the Labour Party conference last week, David Cameron was quoted in the Sun as having said, “He might believe in One Nation, but I thought it sounded more like East Germany than Great Britain.”

He might think this is funny. It's unlikely he thinks it's clever. You can tell by the mess he's made of the economy - a double-dip recession and borrowing going up - that David Cameron isn't any good at economics, but surely he's better at history than this. He surely doesn't believe it. If he does, he needs to explain himself.

Here are some of the things Ed Miliband called for last week. Better vocational education and more apprenticeships. A proper split between high street and casino banking. Making it easier for businesses to plan for the long term. An end to rip-off pension charges. I don't know why those things sound like East Germany to David Cameron. They don't sound like East Germany to me. A divided Germany is not the most obvious model for a one nation politician.

The last thing we need in this country is to import the worst elements of US Tea Party politics into our own. It's dishonest, it's fatuous and it debases our politics. We don't need to start comparing our opponents to regimes which in reality epitomise worse evils than anything we see in Britain today, either on the mainstream left or the mainstream right. We don't want politics in which offensive caricatures take the place of arguments, or in which a genuine issue of conscience like abortion becomes a party political dividing line.

I'm sending David Cameron a copy of Stasiland. I genuinely hope he reads it. And then I hope he will realise that he made a bad mistake in stooping so low as to invoke one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century in describing a contemporary mainstream British political party. I hope the Prime Minister will reflect on what he said, and take it back.

Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central.

David Cameron listens to Foreign Secretary William Hague during the opening day of the Conservative Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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