Poster boy Dave and the coming campaign

Are you thinking what we're . . . Hang on, scrap that

Election posters are rarely targeted at the passing eyeballs on the Hammersmith Flyover. Rather, they are designed to create a media event that in turn gets TV, newspaper and, yes, blog coverage worth far more than the price of even the highest outdoor rate card.

And so, here we are again. The pre-campaign skirmishes will be punctuated regularly by these billboard launches, Sky News cameras in tow. In 2005, Labour used this period to launch some of its most memorable (if contentious) posters, including its attack on the Tories for their supposed £35bn cuts in public services.

This time, it's David Cameron's Conservative Party that's first with the ladders and paste. So what can we divine from poster number one?

1. Dave is going to get top billing. It's "David Cameron (featuring the Conservative Party)" and not the other way around. Given his popularity compared to his party's, that is understandable. For now, at least. But as Mike Smithson asks over at PoliticalBetting, could the Dave-specific approach become a hostage to fortune?

2. The Tories are hoping to have it both ways on policy. "I'll cut the deficit," says Poster Dave, demonstrating his economic credentials and his willingness to take tough decisions. But "not the NHS", he quickly adds, with a nod and a wink to those disenchanted Labour voters of 1997, 2001 and 2005.

It will be the Labour strategists' role to try to make a nonsense of this Janus-like approach. For example, as my colleague George Eaton notes elsewhere, the Tories may come unstuck over claims that a higher inheritance-tax threshold will be revenue-neutral. Again, two-faced: tax cuts, but not at the expense of "front-line services".

3. The Tories have ditched the dog whistle, for now. You'll remember the Lynton Crosby-inspired "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" campaign of 2005, which played to presumed fears over immigration, dirty hospitals and violent crime (see picture below). No sign, so far, of this kind of appeal to the base and, to be fair to Cameron, much of his four-year leadership has been spent repairing the damage.

But if the polls start to tighten once the campaign proper begins, there's every chance the tactics will get dirtier. After all, Michael Howard, who put his name a manifesto titled "Are you thinking what we're thinking? It's time for action", began his leadership trying to move the Conservatives back towards the centre ground.

Incidentally, you may not recall the man charged with pulling that 2005 manifesto together. His name was David Cameron.

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
Show Hide image

If Jeremy Corbyn does win, the Greens should shut up shop

If self-described socialists continue to organise outside of the Labour party, they risk depriving the left's main outlet of both talent and voters, warns Michael Chessum.

It could all be rash complacency, but for much of left thoughts have already begun to focus on the reality of a Corbyn-led Labour Party. In the Labour left, the air is swirling with new projects – to back Corbyn up as leader, to organise the membership against parts of the PLP if necessary, to bring Labour into social movements and social movements into Labour. But outside Labour, too, the wider left is waking up to discover the entirely different reality that could be posed by a sharp left turn in leadership. In the Green Party, and especially among those on the left of the party, there is increasing pressure to find a formal working arrangement with Corbyn’s Labour, much of which is reflected in Caroline Lucas’s open letter in the Independent last week. An electoral pact is, apparently, already on the table.

Lucas’s call for an electoral pact is a pretty honest gesture, and will not be entirely uncontroversial in her own party; it is certainly worth much more than, as some more cynical onlookers in Labour have put it, “please don’t run against me in Brighton Pavillion”. It could also be significant in terms of electoral arithmetic: after boundary changes, and in any tight election, Labour will need the 3.8 per cent of the vote that the Greens got at the last election.  But while Lucas and other leftwingers in the Green Party are at least acknowledging the issue, there is a danger that they will avoid a more fundamental question: if Corbyn wins, does it really make sense for self-described socialists in the Green Party to continue a separate existence outside of Labour at all?

Corbyn represents the undeniable arrival of a wider political trend. Across Europe, democratic socialism is undergoing a split: yesterday’s “realists”, who argue for an accommodation with neo-liberal economics and the austerity politics that follows it like clockwork, are on one side; on the other is an assortment of socialists and social democrats who argue for something else. Mass anti-austerity politics has not been a one-party affair in the UK: it was built from the ground up by students, workers and community campaigns; it was road-tested in Scotland; and it has been formulated into policy from a variety of angles, as well as by the Corbyn campaign itself. But now, in the face of the realities presented by five more years in opposition, the vital political expression of the anti-austerity movement seems to have come to fruition in the Labour Party.

This fact will leave one of the largest sections of the organised left – the Green left – disorientated and unsure of what to do. Some socialists and leftwingers in the Green Party are there on the basis of a genuine conviction that the green movement, rather than the labour movement, is their political home. But for the vast bulk of those drawn to the Green left – many of them freshly recruited from recent social movements, others exiles from Labour under Blair – the purpose of the Green left is premised largely on the idea that a credible party-political alternative was needed, and that an anti-austerity surge would be impossible inside the Labour Party. This premise is now ebbing away.

The race is now on for the true believers to convince their periphery of the virtues of remaining in the Green Party after Corbyn wins. Many may yet be convinced, and the Labour left should not be complacent about recruiting a sudden tide of departing Greens.  But for those who joined because they wanted to intervene into mainstream politics from the left, there should be no doubt as to where the big fights will now happen, and where those committed to having them should go.

The incorporation of elements of the radical left’s core constituency into the Greens was always a peculiarity of recent British history. Had it become a sustainable arrangement and grown into a faint British Syriza, it would have made the Green Party of England and Wales unique in Europe, where ecologist and green parties usually sit distinctly and uneasily next to their far-left counterparts.

Much of the uneasiness that characterises the relationship between green parties and radical left groupings in other countries is about ideas, but much of it is also about tribalism – the simple fact that they have separate organisations which need to be different, and which breed differences in approach as often as they reflect them. If either the Green left or the Labour left are not careful, this tribalism will replicate itself, weakening everyone and dividing the left for no particularly coherent political reason.

That is why it is so significant that figures as senior as Caroline Lucas are already making overtures to Corbyn’s Labour. However, there is a danger that behind the positive gestures lie a serious of less friendly assumptions: that any electoral pact is temporary, is designed to build and promote the existence of the two separate parties, and would end upon the introduction of a proportional voting system – a move which, although positive in itself, would further entrench the fault lines between the Green and Labour lefts.

There are numerous ways that this could be overcome which would avoid the Greens simply dissolving themselves or quietly surrendering their politics. If it carried majority support in the party, the Green Party could reach the same arrangement with Labour that the Co-operative Party has: it would have its own structures, and would run Green-Labour candidates in places where it won the selection inside the local Labour Party. If there is no majority for such an arrangement, socialist Greens who want a higher degree of unity with Labour could form a faction, first within the Greens, and, if they continued to lose the argument, they could break away to form a platform in Labour.

As the seemingly impossible becomes a reality, there will be all kinds of realignments in the political space that the Labour left and Green left both claim to occupy – not to mention a potential split on Labour’s right wing. The best hope for a healthy realignment of the British left lies in an honest exchange of ideas; a newly democratised and pluralistic Labour Party which embraces – rather than excludes – political energy formerly to its left; and a willingness on the part of external political forces to orientate themselves towards Labour as the political expression of a mass movement. Those forces should involve the left wing of the Green Party.