You win nothing in politics just for being right

If the Tories were a private company, their shareholders would be furious. So why are voters more le

Imagine you are a management consultant called in by shareholders to appraise the performance of the management team of a large business. They were recruited a couple of years ago and, although inexperienced, took over with a highly controversial strategy for reducing the company's debt. The workforce has since been radically reduced as have the pensions and benefits of those employees who remain. The hugely popular childcare scheme has been axed and the equally successful company healthcare scheme put out to tender.

Corporate morale is, not unsurprisingly, at an all-time low. Even worse, all of this sacrifice has not only been in vain but has proved positively counter-productive. The company's growth has stalled, annual losses have increased and the corporate debt is higher than ever. The management team has itself recently had to admit that its flagship strategy (let's call it Plan A) lies in tatters.

That is not all. Even the execution of their plan has been inept. Through almost laughable naivety and arrogance in their preparation for, and conduct at, a crucial meeting of the business's European partners, the management team found itself isolated, tactically outplayed and unable to achieve any of its negotiating goals. At home, its management style has been characterised by poorly considered proposals which have, more often than not, been reversed at the first sign of trouble. Those with which they persist have been subjected to so many unforeseen amendments and variations that they have been rendered of Byzantine complexity making them not only incomprehensible but impracticable.

How then would you, the management consultant, rate this team? In what terms would you report back to the shareholders? Would you tell them that the company was in safe hands, that management was doing a good job in difficult circumstances and that their interests as shareholders were best served by letting this team carry on? I thought not. And yet that is precisely the current judgement of the electorate of this administration. Why?

The unfortunate truth is that politics isn't a talent competition any more than it is simply a question of being right. If it were, then the fact that Labour consistently and accurately predicted the failure of Plan A - a plan whose corollary has been wildly unpopular cuts to valued public services - would have led to it now enjoying a 15-point lead in the polls and Ed Balls being feted as the economic seer of his age. While all of this may lead one to conclude that the electorate is irrational or capricious, I would argue that it merely continues to behave as it has always done. It has now, and ever has had, two primary criteria, to which all else is subsidiary.

Firstly, and as ever, it's the economy, stupid. Everyone wants a world class health service, a state education system that realises the potential of every child and decent pension provision for all -- and the polls tell us that the voters consistently trust Labour more than the Tories to prioritise, and to deliver, them. However, those same voters also know that without a stable, growing, economy, they will not happen, regardless of who is in power. And for so long as the electorate believes that Labour was responsible for, and has no credible solution to, the country's current economic predicament, they will not trust it with the reins of government.

The polls tell us that this is precisely what they do believe and you could hardly blame them for doing otherwise. As I suggested in an article which I wrote in these pages nearly a year ago, the Tories' greatest triumph since the election has been the embedding of the twin myths that it was the profligacy of Labour ('the maxing out of the credit card') that caused the deficit to balloon and that the only sensible response is therefore savagely to cut public expenditure.

It pains me to reflect that Labour has done so little since then to disabuse the public. Now that Osborne's Plan A has been exposed as economic illiteracy, it may find a more receptive audience for its message of 'too far too fast' but it needs to work far, far harder to deliver its own narrative. Labour must explain both the cause and its solution in straightforward terms that we can all understand. Do neither and we may as well all sit back and wait for the Tories to win a majority at the next election.

Secondly, and no less importantly, the country likes its leader to look the part. Whatever one's view of Cameron - and, believe me, mine could not be much more negative - he looks like a prime minister. He is telegenic, charismatic, confident and assured. He is seen (paradoxically given his administration's record) as decisive, even ruthless. These are qualities which the electorate likes and admires. To prove my point, and without naming names, I invite you to consider the characteristics of those party leaders who have achieved electoral success in the last thirty years and those who have not.

The sad truth is that unless your leader has, and is seen to have, those qualities - in short, unless he looks the part - you are whistling in the wind. That is why a stock question of the pollsters is whether you can visualise candidate X standing outside Downing Street. We cannot ignore the fact that Ed Miliband is currently failing that acid test. He can console himself that, for some time after she was elected Tory leader, so did Margaret Thatcher. It took a lot of time, hard work and the magic of Gordon Reece and the Saatchi brothers to mould her into a plausible prime minister - but it worked. Time, however, is not on his side. We live in volatile times and we cannot assume that a general election is years hence. Ed, and those around him, need to recognise the problem and act on it, urgently and effectively.

Labour can theorise as much as it wants about the mythical centre ground of politics and how to capture it. It can do good work, and make transient headlines, on phone tapping, Murdoch, bankers' bonuses and executive pay. It can echo public anger about pensions, austerity and cuts to public services. But without a coherent and compelling narrative on the economy and a leader who genuinely looks like a prime minister-in-waiting, Labour will not only fail to win the next general election, it will become a political irrelevance.

John Whitting is a QC and member of the Labour Party.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses