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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.