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.

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.