Cameron’s vajazzling of the Tories is over. It's back to being right-wing

The Conservatives' claim to be anything other than a predictably right-wing party is the real casualty of last week.

The net result of the past week is that something resembling a left/right binary seems to have resumed in British politics. Labour has launched a poster slamming the Conservatives for giving a generous tax cut to millionaires. The Tories have tried to tie the appalling case of Mick Philpott to a larger argument in favour of welfare cuts. 

For both parties, their tactics resound with voters. The Tories think they have tapped into a powerful public resentment at something-for-nothing welfarism, while Labour channels public distaste against the rich for not paying their share.

As is often the case, opinion polls show that both sides are on to something. But Tory strategists and commentators who think they have managed to lash Ed Miliband to Mick Philpott overstate their case. Liam Byrne’s sabre-rattling in yesterday's Observer about enforcing a tougher contributory principle in the social security system, rewarding those who have paid into it, is easily understood by the public and leaves the Tories with the task of turning their bar-room rhetoric into policy. They are the government after all.

But Miliband’s enduring challenge in projecting his "one nation" politics is to bear the weight of public expectations – even ones the left doesn’t like - and carve out a new centre ground settlement around those concerns. Hence Labour's decision to devote a recent party political broadcast to immigration. 

However, he needs to be quicker on his feet in doing so. Byrne’s intervention should have been made in last Sunday’s papers, before the Philpott judgement, not yesterday's. (Despite spending the past 14 months doggedly making the case for the contributory principle, Byrne looks like he’s responding to events).

Miliband needs to hold on to his base, marshalling the energy of those on the left who despise the government’s rampant inequality, without becoming framed by their outrage, which is simply not shared by most voters. He needs to be clearer that the Owen Jones’s of the left speak for themselves and not the Labour Party.

But the Tory claim to be anything other than a predictably right-wing party is the real casualty of last week. Cameron never fundamentally altered the nasty party, he simply vajazzled it. It exposes his deep flaws as a leader, a lack of strategic acumen and an inability to put in the spadework that real change demands.

The resurgence of one nation Toryism he initially promised (his huskies and hoodies agenda) has now been scuttled by the imperative of fending off UKIP and restoring equilibrium to his increasingly fractious backbenchers, as David Talbot noted on The Staggers the other day.

So talk of "the big society" has faded to a whisper. Measuring happiness is passé when your rhetoric is actively seeking to sow division. While, most damningly, claims that "we’re all in this together" ring even hollower in a week where a millionaire Tory Chancellor sought political advantage in the deaths of six children.

David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration at in Ipswich, eastern England on 25 March, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may reaffiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that most firefighters are not Corbynites. The reaffiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.