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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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