Westminster’s short-sighted obsessions will not be what decides the next election

The Tories are starting to notice Labour’s higher levels of local organisation.

The day after winning the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, Andy Murray was the guest of honour at a hastily arranged reception on the Downing Street lawn. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were there alongside David Cameron and, at one point, the tennis star found himself in polite chatter with the three leaders. “It’s so nice to see you all getting along so well,” Murray observed drily. “Shame you can’t be like this all the time.” There was an awkward pause. The emotionless delivery made it impossible to tell if he was being deadpan or deadly earnest.
 
Something is wrong with our politics when party leaders behaving like civilised human beings is noteworthy and the suggestion they do it more often is potentially laughable. People who spend a lot of time in Westminster come to judge politicians on their own rarefied terms and forget what the rest of the country sees: robotic interviews, synthetic smiles and smug put-downs bellowed across the House of Commons. It is weird and unattractive. The theatrical combat is presumed to be phoney – politicians hamming up their differences when really they are all the same. The rebuke is partly fair, given the generous representation of white, fortysomething, Oxbridge-educated men on parliament’s front benches. The ranks of political journalism are no more diverse.
 
The party leaders are aware of how distant they are from the electorate. They have all tried doses of unfiltered public exposure as a remedy. The Conservative leader took his “Cameron Direct” show on the road long before the last election and occasionally revives the format. Labour’s local election campaign this spring involved Miliband addressing crowds from a box in market squares. Since January, Clegg has performed in a weekly radio phone-in show.
 
These devices are designed to allow candidates to get their message across unmediated by the press. They also allow aides to brief the media that the candidates are taking their message directly to the public. The leaders always think they have gone down well, because British audiences are mostly deferential to people they have seen on television. Vanity translates politeness as approval.
 
Parading social confidence and calling it the common touch does nothing to resolve the crisis in political representation. The historical party allegiances are fraying; membership is in long-term decline. To join a party is an eccentric act these days and, as some MPs privately concede, a rip-off. You buy the opportunity to surrender your time in the service of a remote machine. During elections, you get begging emails asking for more. The firmer you are in your ideals, the likelier it is that you will be rejected as naive and obtuse when your party forms a government.
 
Of the big three, Labour has the most developed strategy for dealing with this problem. Miliband has embraced the US model of “community organising” – training activists to mobilise neighbours and friends towards modest local goals such as getting derelict parks cleaned up and potholes filled. The idea is that when people see tangible results, they feel empowered and start thinking of politics as something they do, rather than something done to them. Miliband’s team doesn’t claim that this is a substitute for conventional campaigning but it is keen to advertise it as a symbol of the leader’s ambition to change the way politics works.
 
The Tories are starting to notice Labour’s higher levels of local organisation. In marginal seats, they say their opponents are ahead in surveying the battleground and mapping potential supporters with a view to getting them out on polling day. In a close election, having boots on the ground is vital. As one Labour strategist puts it: “They can outspend us but we will out-organise them.”
 
Meanwhile, Tories hoping to unseat Lib Dems have taken as a warning the Eastleigh by-election in February. Conditions could hardly have been worse for Clegg’s party. Its national opinion poll ratings barely touched double figures; the outgoing MP was heading for jail; Lord Rennard, the mastermind of past by-election victories, had been accused of sexual harassment. The Lib Dems were marching into a force-ten tabloid gale and still the seat was held.
 
That result was down to local intelligence and tenacious activism. Miliband knows the value of those resources because it was their depletion in Bradford West that allowed George Galloway to nick what should have been a safe Labour seat for the Respect Party. Many Tories worry that their own local reserves are ineffective or running away to Ukip.
 
That deficiency doesn’t register in Westminster because the Conservatives are dominant in the “air war” – the campaign to set the tone of national news coverage and thereby control the terms of political debate. Tory MPs are cheery: they see the economy slowly recovering and they see Labour pinned down as the party of mass immigration, lavish benefits and sucking up to Brussels. At least, that is what the newspapers they read tell them and they notice enough glum expressions on the faces of Labour MPs for it to ring true.
 
But the Conservative momentum has limits. It is ethnically and geographically confined. Labour and Lib Dem private polling tells them that outside the south-east, there is still no shortage of people who just don’t like Tories and won’t vote for them. That cultural inoculation isn’t new, so it doesn’t get reported much. It also goes against the grain of most political commentary, which assumes direct transmission from the tone of stories in London-based newspapers to national voting intentions. That is a risky assumption. A common theme in by-elections and council polls during this parliament has been that voters are angry with politicians and express their rage in unpredictable ways. The Westminster view is that the Tories are on a roll but Westminster is short-sighted. It may also no longer be where politics is won. 
David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. 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 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Getty
Show Hide image

The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit