Cameron is right: the common ground is not the centre ground

Outside the Westminster wrestling ring and town hall terrains, there is no left-wing or right-wing.

There’s been no shortage of opinion on how David Cameron should lead and direct the Conservative Party over the last few days. And even less scarce are the various calls for turning and lurching that would resemble a new disco dance routine were he to take heed. However Cameron's public response has been to stay firmly on message. Amongst all these cliches, I can’t help wondering if I am alone in thinking: 'I agree with Dave?'

In his Sunday Telegraph article, Cameron maintained that what he cares about are the needs of the "ordinary people". He also rightly acknowledged that the common ground is not the same as the lowest common denominator. This may point to both a savviness about the current public mood and a deeper astuteness of leadership that rises above the demands from his party grassroots.

Before I go on, I just want to make it clear, I’m not a natural Cameroon by any means. My impression of Cameron during the 2010 election was accurately represented by the election advert spoofs of him intensely gazing outwards from the sky blue backdrop with the caption "Vote Conservative. Or I will kill this kitten." In other words, I found the - similarly intense - promise of a new brand of progressive Conservatism slightly nauseating, if not altogether spurious.

However, as with any reality TV gameshow, which politics unfortunately often resembles, the true test of determination is one which withstands time in the hot seat – something David Cameron must know much about. And actually, political manoeuvring is, by definition, anything other than staying on course.

Last week, the Daily Telegraph ran an editorial with the standfirst, "A new path to prosperity is the only means by which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor can return the Tories to favour". That is just the type of shortsighted viewpoint which leads to complacency in the better times and crisis in the worse. A healthier economy might dampen the volume, but it won’t erase memories of expenses scandals, various cases of "inappropriate" conduct, or one-off events such as "plebgate" and "pastygate".

But what do the public want? Well for starters, 'the public' are disillusioned with politics and distrusting of politicians. According to Lord Ashcroft, three quarters of those who supported UKIP in Eastleigh said their vote was a protest vote out of discontent with the main parties. They (and why do political commentators always refer to the public as a separate body? More like we) have ideals of fairness that correlate with perceptions of recognition, responsibility, but also responsiveness – of a system that will be on our side no matter which side we are on, and that will safeguard our opportunities in times of plenty and in times of misfortune. It might all sound a bit Rawlsian but actually this as simple as it gets for the 'ordinary' voter (or eligible-but-can’t-be-bothered-non-voter) who only engages with politics once every four years.

So the common ground isn’t the middle ground, although the terms are often used interchangeably, something I have been guilty of in the past. It is not about the "bell curve of voters in the middle" as Bernard Jenkins put it. Indeed, it is about disrupting the status quo of adversarial politics for one which requires deeper thought and questioning of mainstream assumptions. It is recognising that my ordinary isn’t your ordinary, but respecting that there are ways of making policy which can recognise and respect both. And actually, this doesn’t have to be confrontational. It could be consensual. I’m not saying that we have absolutely no need for the more conventional political jostling at appropriate points in the legislative and scrutiny process. But the current culture of politics prioritises this over all other types of dialogue. Politicians do not always need to be carved from the same mould just because the media thrive best on stories about rebels and ridicule.

Outside the Westminster wrestling ring and town hall terrains, there is no left-wing or right-wing – on this also I agree with Dave. If Ed Miliband stole the Conservatives’ clothes when quoting Disraeli’s "one nation" back in the autumn, perhaps Cameron deliberately took a swipe back by referencing the common ground. Whilst he linked the phrase to Keith Joseph (probably as an olive branch to the dedicated readers of the Torygraph) it is also resonant of the "common good" attributed to Michael Sandel, one of the more recently proclaimed gurus of the Labour Party. This narrative promotes a moral argument for a political and economic vision which transcends party politics and draws instead on values, shared responsibility and civic engagement. A coincidence or something more from the man whose mind is set on opening the doors of a party once seen as restricted to the fox hunting, land-owning elite?

It is types not unlike these calling for the shotguns now. So, will Cameron really be fending off a leadership challenge in the next few months? I think not. Realistically no one other than him could respectably lead the Conservatives through the 2015 election. Abandoning his carefully crafted principles around international aid or the NHS would make him a laughing stock, rather than a conviction politician. And I also don’t begrudge him having a long-term vision. But perhaps this long term vision isn’t just about jobs, education and house building. Perhaps it is in recognition of the fact that politics itself might be changing.

Caroline Macfarland is managing director of ResPublica

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on February 27, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Macfarland is manging director of ResPublica

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.