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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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.