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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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war