The Conservatives want to keep Labour hemmed into its past – and so do the unions

While the Labour leader takes time to ponder the future, his party is drifting into a style of politics that looks in urgent need of consignment to the past.

New Labour’s triumph over the Conservatives at the end of the 20th century was mostly cultural. That isn’t a belittlement. Culture trumps politics when it comes to social change. Politics intervenes; culture pervades.

During the long economic boom, Conservatives were culturally marginalised. To be a Tory was to be a curmudgeon at the carnival, fingers in ears, moaning about the racket. Since 2010, the Tories have turned that around, depicting Labour as revellers who didn’t notice when the music stopped. This is usually presented as an economic argument but that understates its potency. The need for austerity – harking back to postwar privations – is a cultural assertion.

The Tories never threw off their “nasty party” image but they have made a virtue of meanness. Having the will to inflict pain is now accepted as a test of readiness to govern. New Labour’s age of ebullience has been rewritten as a dark time of uncontrolled debt, immigration and welfare.

Yet Tory and Lib Dem strategists report that Labour’s brand is oddly resilient. Ed Miliband’s personal image is weak and much of the blame for economic misery clings to his party but enough voters retain a sense that the left’s heart is in the right place. George Osborne is encouraged by the public’s surrender to austerity but that isn’t a reliable advantage for the Tories if their motives are suspect. In an election defined by the need to ration public money, one question asked of each party will be: “Whose side are you on?” Many people will look at David Cameron and supply the answer: “His rich chums.”

The equivalent label that Cameron wants to pin on Miliband is “militant trade unions”. The Prime Minister overestimates public fear of organised labour. Strikes aren’t always popular but it takes some immersion in Conservative demonology from the 1970s to see the unions as enemies of society.

Still, senior Labour figures are less relaxed about the union connection than they were even a year ago. Cameron’s attacks on that front used to be dismissed as wild misfiring, a red-faced toff hectoring nurses, teachers and dinner ladies. That certainty has dissolved in anxiety about Unite, the largest union formally affiliated to Labour and the source of roughly a quarter of the party’s funding. Under the guidance of its general secretary, Len McCluskey, Unite is accused of requisitioning chunks of the party machine and inserting anointed candidates in line for winnable parliamentary seats.

This has been blown into the open by the bodged attempt to select a replacement for Eric Joyce, the Falkirk MP whose parliamentary career was derailed by a brawl in a House of Commons bar. Among other things, Unite is accused of buying up bogus Labour membership by the bucketful to swing the ballot. The selection process has been halted and the local party placed under “special measures”. The episode is now tangled in arcane disputes about party rules and salacious rumour.

There is nothing new about dodgy candidate selections, although historically at least some of the stitching up was done to suit the interests of the leader. These days, the machine is seen as an autonomous operation under the control of Tom Watson, the deputy chair of the Labour Party, its “campaign coordinator” and a friend of McCluskey.

Miliband’s allies accept that the Falkirk episode is, as one aide tells me, “obviously a car crash” but they also point out that the party has acted decisively to get a grip on the situation.

MPs are just as worried about the wider culture of hostile briefing and intimidation that is associated with the Watson operation, which is much the same apparatus that sustained Gordon Brown in his bunker. “It’s a way of doing politics that could end up profoundly damaging the Labour Party,” says one frontbencher.

Much of this goes unnoticed by voters but the Tories feast on it. They hope a message will get out that the Labour Party has its own nasty streak; that Miliband’s gentle, pious manner is a velvet glove on the old, clunking fist. The Conservatives need to keep Labour hemmed into its past. That task is easier if the leader looks subservient to union bosses who hate his recent conversion to spending restraint.

It was impatience to talk about the future, instead of rehearsing anti-austerity arguments devised for the economy as it was in 2010, that provoked Miliband into public acceptance last month that a government he led would be bound by much the same spending limits as those proposed by the coalition. The left has been disorientated by the move, but friends of the Labour leader say he is more confident of his position now than before the leap. While the Tories are having fun knocking the opposition for disarray and lack of commitment to the new line, Miliband is calm in the knowledge that his resolve is, as usual, underestimated.

His plan supposes the gradual unfurling of a banner on which will be inscribed an election-winning message of social and economic renaissance, delivered on a tight budget. Frugal idealism. On paper, that is the right strategic place for Miliband but his problems aren’t on paper and they aren’t all strategic. They are cultural. And culture, as the writer Peter Drucker once said, eats strategy for breakfast. While the Labour leader takes time to ponder the future, his party is drifting into a style of politics that looks in urgent need of consignment to the past.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.