Why the Tories should avoid echoing Gove's attacks on Miliband

Throwing rhetorical jibes at the Labour leader is a crude displacement activity that will do little to aid the Tories' cause.

Michael Gove's blitzkrieg against Ed Miliband in today's Telegraph ("a blancmange in a hurricane") is a preview of the strategy we can expect the Consevatives to adopt in 2015. Framing the election as a presidential contest, they will depict Miliband as 'weak' (and 'weird') in contrast to the 'strong' (and 'normal') Cameron. 

The Education Secretary writes:

[T]he weakness of Ed Miliband is all the starker when we consider that there is no programme of concrete policies, bound together by principles that make them intelligible and resilient, which any of us in politics can yet associate with his leadership. He is as clearly defined as a blancmange in a hurricane.

...

Miliband, incapable of choosing when he should be eager to lead, inconstant and vacillating when he should be backing the idealists, seeking refuge in a world where Willy Wonka and Montgomery Burns seem relevant because he cannot bear too much reality.

But while Gove and others (most notably George Osborne and Lynton Crosby) believe that attack is the best form of defence, there are good reasons why the Tories should avoid such an onslaught. As Lord Ashcroft, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, noted last year, "Voters think parties go on the attack when they have nothing to say for themselves." In 2010, when the Tories should have focused relentlessly on reassuring centrist voters that they could be trusted to run the economy and protect public services, they ran a crude series of anti-Brown posters emblazoned with slogans such as "I let 80,000 criminals out early - vote for me". Predictably, they fell short. 

The Conservatives should also avoid the error of assuming that an anti-Miliband jihad will draw the voters they need away from Labour. In many cases, they support the party in spite of Miliband, not because of him, so reminding them of this fact is unlikely to help. Far better for the Tories to focus on persuading current Labour supporters that they can govern in the interests of all voters, rather than a rich few (the biggest obstacle, as Ashcroft continually points out, to a Conservative victory).

As I noted yesterday, it is idle and complacent of the Tories to assume that Cameron's superior personal ratings will be their salvation. History shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister" but that didn't stop the Conservatives winning a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's personal lead over Ted Heath (a 51 per cent approval rating compared to one of 28 per cent for Heath) didn't stop Labour going down to a decisive defeat. 

It's too early to say which precedent 2015 will follow, but the key point is this: there is no reason to assume that Miliband's ratings (should they fail to improve) will cost Labour victory. In the meantime, the Tories would be wise to focus on the many obstacles to a Conservative win: the surge in support for UKIP (which will almost certainly improve on its 2010 share of 3 per cent), the defection of Lib Dem supporters to Labour in Tory-Labour marginals (the seats that will determine the outcome of the election) and the continuing lack of growth. Confronted by all of this, strident attacks on Miliband are a fairly obvious displacement activity. Gove can certainly turn a phrase, but his verbal volleys won't turn the election. 

Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What progressives can learn from Europe

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging.

The debate about the Labour party’s future has seldom been more parochial or inward-looking. Those who pass comment on Labour’s fate from the right and left of the party do so with an almost entirely British lens. In this insular universe, it is as if the world beyond the UK’s shores never existed. ‘Socialism in one country’ is back with a vengeance. Yet to recover politically and electorally, British Labour must learn from social democrats and progressive forces across Europe. There are three critical lessons from other countries that the centre-left ought to heed.  

The first is that centre-left parties have to resist being squeezed between neo-liberalism and the new social movements. Yes, social democrats should rebuild their economic credibility and espouse a responsible governing agenda. But that should not mean rejecting all ties to social and environmental activism. The networked civil society is where most political energy and vitality currently resides in western democracies. The lesson of Podemos in Spain and Greece’s Syriza is that people want to be agents of change themselves, whether saving local high streets from unscrupulous developers or working to build their own affordable housing. Casting a ballot every four or five years no longer constitutes meaningful political engagement. Across Europe, social democrats have to form new alliances in pursuit of a better society reaching beyond traditional party structures. 

A further object lesson is that opposition to austerity on its own is not enough to win power. Of course, premature cuts have weakened growth, jobs and living standards. In southern Europe, the masochistic pursuit of austerity threatens to unleash a social catastrophe. However, centre-left parties must show they would be competent managers of the economy articulating a coherent plan to deal with debt: not just net public sector debt over the economic cycle, but tackling unsustainable financial sector and household debt. Social democrats have to show how they would govern in a world where there is less money around for state spending after the great recession and the impending threat of secular stagnation. This demands a strategy for regulating financial markets that promotes the public good, tackles systemic risks and reforms banks that are ‘too big to fail’. An industrial modernisation plan would rebalance our economies away from their reliance on financial services towards knowledge-intensive sectors and manufacturing. In reforming the tax system, there ought to be a major clamp-down on cross-border tax evasion and fraud while restoring the progressivity of tax using redistribution to tackle new inequalities.

Finally, the left must not be distracted from confronting deeper underlying forces in politics. Centre-left parties are losing elections because voters don’t trust politicians to protect their way of life against the impersonal forces of global change. Europe has pitched dramatically to the right - not only towards Christian Democratic and Conservative parties, but new forces adept at exploiting voters’ fears about economic insecurity, immigration and hostility to the EU. In the UK, UKIP has now become the dominant challenger to Labour in northern England and the Midlands; last year, the Danish People’s party surged to power. In the heartlands of European social democracy, from the Nordic states to France and the Netherlands, right-wing populists are on the rise. In Austria this week, a hard right presidential candidate was in touching-distance of power.

The failure to counter the right isn’t just about poorly executed electoral strategies, weak leadership, or the price of incumbency in coalition governments: something more profound is going on. Regardless of national context, social democracy’s support base is being eaten away. The left is losing, not just on the conventional politics of economic competence, but increasingly on the vexed politics of national identity.

That said, the temptation to raise the drawbridge against immigration ought to be resisted. Flirting with a restrictive immigration policy is superficially tempting when the populist right is winning, but imposing arbitrary limits would be economically damaging as well as politically unprincipled. Instead, low wage and vulnerable workers across the EU ought to be better protected. Permitting the uncontrolled exploitation of low-cost labour in Eastern Europe has undermined the entire European project. More safeguards against agency working and zero-hours contracts are needed.             

Rather than pretending that government on its own can do everything to shield citizens and communities from global market forces, the priority should also be to encourage intermediate institutions located between the central state and the free market that rebuild a sense of local attachment, recreate respect for traditional jobs and civic identities, and encourage a spirit of mutual obligation embodied in organisations like mutual’s and co-op’s. The left must end its ambivalence about English identity in the aftermath of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Labour must not be afraid ‘to speak for England’.

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging. To navigate the hard road back to power, social democratic parties will have to acknowledge the communal attachments that give meaning to our lives in an era of unprecedented insecurity and upheaval. Only by securing the trust and allegiance of citizens within the nation-state can the centre-left win the argument for international engagement and co-operation: the cornerstone of a liberal world order. 

Patrick Diamond is Co-Chair of Policy Network. The Progressive Governance Conference takes place in Stockholm 26-7 May 2016