Labour must face up to Cameron's popularity

The party needs to understand the emotional and symbolic nature of Cameron's appeal.

As Labour takes a one-point lead in the polls, it is faced with a problem it doesn't want to address: David Cameron. Despite his U-turns and policy disasters, Cameron has been having a good crisis and Labour has been unable to lay a glove on him. His NHS own goal looks like a golden opportunity. But is it?

There are only two issues that matter up to the election: leadership and the economy. Labour has to win credibility on both to win back people's trust. Cameron outshines Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband as the popular choice for prime minister. He is seen as determined, competent and ruthless. In the hierarchies of a Southern-dominated English national identity, Cameron is an Englishman at home. He projects a familiarity and a patrician authority that give him an aura of historical continuity with the past. He is natural in his surroundings and looks as at ease in government as he does amongst his family and friends. Cameron connects with people.

Labour, still encumbered by its overly rationalist view of politics, cannot grasp the emotional and symbolic nature of Cameron's appeal. It's just PR. It's all lies. But to take on Cameron and win Labour has to understand his popularity and face up to why it is failing to connect with the public.

As Labour seeks to restore its economic credibility it risks focusing on the deficit to the exclusion of a wider story about the kind of country it wants to build. Labour's policy detail has to be woven into a story of national renewal. England will be the battle ground of the future. The Tory right know this - further devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and the English regions will recast the Ynion and threaten Labour's position as a Unionist party. And yet Labour has not yet begun to tell its own nation-building story of England. It allows the image of a Conservative country to hold sway - with Cameron at its heart.

Cameron reinvented the Conservatives by stepping out of the Tory comfort zone and borrowing the language of ethical socialism. In a 2005 speech he set out the philosophy that put him on course to be Prime Minister. He had two core beliefs . The first is that, "the more power and responsibility people have over their own lives, the stronger they become, and the stronger society becomes". The second is "the conviction that there is not a single challenge we face that isn't best tackled by recognising the simple truth that we are all in this together." He went on to declare that, "our challenge must be to harness people's innate sense of duty, compassion and personal responsibility" - "there is more to life than money".

Cameron captured the mood of a country distrustful of Labour's impersonal, technocratic and statist politics. Labour refused to take his pro-social politics seriously. Seven years later and entangled in the compromises and mistakes of its time in government, Labour has neither seized hold of this politics nor exploited Cameron's failure to achieve it.

The economic revolution of Thatcherism that Cameron championed has ended in collapse. There is no Big Society because the Coalition defends the same failed short-termist, shareholder value economic model it condemns Labour for supporting. But Labour can't own up that it got the economy wrong and allowed too much licence to the City. Cameron is the bankers' friend, but Labour can't say that it made the same mistake. Cameron's time in office has contradicted his declaration that 'there is more to life than money', but what is Labour's ethics and philosophy of life after the bottom line? Cameron has no compelling story to tell about the future after the sacrifices of austerity. But neither has Labour.

Cameron's political skill and luck has secured him the centre ground. He has won, for the moment at least, public acceptance of his deficit reduction strategy. There has been a turn toward a more conservative sentiment in the country. And yet the Conservatives are not confident about winning the 2015 election. Despite Cameron's success, this is not a Conservative moment.

Neil O'Brien, Director of the Cameroon think-tank Policy Exchange is asked in an interview, "Where do the Conservatives still have to go?" His answer is the north. "The next big challenge is probably to go after a more working class kind of voter. The midlands and the north is where the next election will be decided." The coalition, however, has abandoned the north and the "working class kind of voter" to insecurity, unemployment and sinking wages. The working poor are paying the highest price for the recession. Even when the green shoots of recovery appear, as they might do this autumn, new jobs will not mean rising living standards. People will have to work hard just to stay afloat while the rich still take the lion's share of growth.

Cameron is not as good as he looks but Labour looks sunk in a state of suspended animation. Where's the brio? If Cameron can weather events and keep the coalition intact he has an opportunity to make Labour politically irrelevant. The Tories succeeded in achieving this in the last major economic crisis in the 1930s. The stakes are high. Labour needs to speak for the country not just the squeezed middle and yet attempts to frame a story of national renewal and a Labour England remain ghost-like. If Labour can't change the way it talks, it can't change what it wants to do. And it won't beat Cameron.

Jonathan Rutherford is editor of Soundings journal and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.