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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.