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.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.