Lessons for the left in 2011

Don’t underestimate Cameron and get lucky.

As 2011 begins, it's time for the British left to face some unwelcome facts. The Conservative-led coalition may already be unpopular with a very difficult 12 months ahead of it as the cuts start and the VAT rise takes effect, but although Nick Clegg's Lib Dems are in big trouble, David Cameron is master of all he surveys.

The coalition may collapse this year but, right now, the fact is that Cameron is the most assured politician in British politics. He is also one of the bravest and, worst of all, he's lucky.

Some commentators have, foolishly, I think, argued that Cameron is an overrated lightweight who couldn't even win a majority against a tired Labour government that had a very unpopular leader. Granted, the Tories should have been pushing 40 per cent rather than the 36 per cent they polled in May. But 36 per cent of the vote gave Labour a comfortable majority in 2005.

It is also true that Cameron and his party fought a poor campaign. Had he gone with a combination of the "let sunshine win the day" optimism so prevalent in his early years as leader and a hard-headed critique of Labour's record, the "time for a change" mood might well have swept the country. Instead, they focused on attacking Gordon Brown personally, while Clegg's "new politics" rhetoric, which sounds so hollow and vacuous now, sounded the optimistic notes the electorate wanted to hear.

But whenever I hear people writing Cameron off, I think back to when he was elected leader in 2005, at a time when most Tories I spoke to expected another Labour election win before they would see power again. But he has got them back into power, pursuing policies that even Margaret Thatcher wouldn't have dared force through. Lest we forget, Maggie Thatcher was also a very lucky politician.

Cameron's bravery in getting the Lib Dems to join what is nominally a coalition but is, in practice, a Tory government in exchange for ministerial posts and a few policies that the Tories couldn't have implemented anyway was breathtakingly skilful in its boldness, but also in its sheer pragmatism.

The Lib Dems had no real alternative, and they and Cameron knew it. Not only did partnership allow Cameron to dispense with many of the lesser members of his shadow cabinet, but it also showed his decisiveness, demonstrated to the public that he was prepared to work with former enemies (though he, Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and David Laws agree on most things) and freed him from all but the most bone-headed right-wingers in his party.

The coalition has worked like a dream for Cameron and been a disaster for Clegg and the Lib Dems. People weren't surprised to see a viciously regressive Budget and tripling of tuition fees from the Tories; it was the complicity and hypocrisy of those supposedly "nice" Liberals that they couldn't comprehend. Making the (very) junior partner take the big hits in the press has allowed Cameron to look like a tough and resolute leader.

You have only to look at the opinion polls to see how strongly the public views Cameron's leadership skills. He comfortably outstrips Ed Miliband and Clegg. In Miliband's case, after just three months in the job, it's hardly surprising that he lags behind Cameron in this regard, but 2011 is the year when his personal ratings as a leader must come close to matching Cameron's.

Neither Cameron nor Miliband is in much danger of seeing 2011 become his annus horribilis. But Clegg is – and he knows it. The Lib Dems are set to be trounced in Oldham East and Saddleworth this week, in a by-election they would normally expect to win easily. The most optimistic of opinion polls point to a loss of councils and hundreds of Lib Dem councillors in the May local elections, coupled with a battering in Scotland and Wales. This plus the loss of the AV referendum could finish Clegg off. No wonder Cameron is considering making Clegg Britain's next EU commissioner.

So let's be cautious about Cameron and his supposed shortcomings. Yes, the Tories should have won an outright majority in May. Yes, he was lucky that Clegg, not Charles Kennedy or Menzies Campbell, was Lib Dem leader, otherwise the coalition would not have been a viable political option. But being decisive and lucky are the greatest assets a politician can have. And judging by the past 12 months, David Cameron has them in spades.

Like Cameron, Miliband won a leadership contest that few gave him much chance of securing. In 2011 he needs more of that luck and to be seen by the electorate as the next prime minister.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.