Labour and the Tories face the same dilemma: to break the deadlock, they need a big idea

If they want to avoid another hung parliament, both sides need to take more risks. This isn't a time for small-ball politics.

To win a majority at the next election, both Labour and the Conservatives will need to defy recent history. No governing party has increased its share of the vote since 1974; no opposition has achieved an overall victory at the first attempt for more than 80 years. Faced with these odds, each side is already preparing for another hung parliament.
 
One shadow minister recently told me that he had been encouraged to look for “points of agreement” with the Lib Dems and to consider constitutional reforms that would appeal to the party, citing the example of proportional representation for local elections. In the Tories’ case, David Cameron is privately discussing plans to offer his MPs a vote on a second power-sharing agreement. Impressed by the discipline of Clegg’s backbenchers compared with that of his truculent troops, Cameron wants his party’s hands “dipped in blood”. Hoping for a win but preparing for a draw, it is Antonio Gramsci’s maxim of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” that is guiding both sides.
 
Yet in an age of voter promiscuity, it remains conceivable that either party could gain a decisive advantage before 2015. The common concern among Labour and Tory MPs is that their leaders are failing to grasp the opportunity to do so. In Ed Miliband’s party, there is increasing anxiety at the disparity between the boldness of his rhetoric and the timidity of his policy proposals. This has led Andy Burnham to break ranks and publicly challenge Miliband to back his plan for an integrated national health and care service. In an earlier and similarly unauthorised intervention, he called for the party to pledge to ban zero-hours contracts.
 
Privately, Miliband’s allies are dismissive of such intemperance. To a degree under-appreciated in Westminster, the Labour leader’s strategy has been shaped by the constitutional novelty of a fixed-term parliament. As one shadow cabinet member put it to me, “We know the date of the next election. There’s no danger of the government cutting and running . . . So we can work backwards. We know when we need our pledge cards by, our manifesto by and our party candidates selected by.” The reasons given for Labour not showing its hand too early are both familiar and persuasive: that the best policies are stolen and the party is lumbered with the worst. In addition, Ed Balls, who is charged with restoring Labour’s economic credibility, is determined to postpone major spending commitments until the state of the public finances is clearer.
 
That the opposition’s MPs know and understand all of this does little to assuage their disquiet. One comparison made with increasing frequency is with Miliband’s erstwhile mentor Gordon Brown, who similarly offered periodic hints of a social-democratic master plan, only for the cupboard to prove bare when he arrived in Downing Street.
 
To this, those close to the Labour leader reply: “Watch this space.” The first phase of the party’s policy review has been completed and the fruits will begin to emerge at this autumn’s conference. Labour has spent the summer charting how the “cost of living” has surged under the coalition, but if the party is to win in 2015 it won’t be enough to convince voters that they’re worse off under the Tories. It will also need to convince them they’d be better off under Labour. The aim of Miliband’s speech will be to bridge this gap, with energy and housing two of the candidates for major policy announcements.
 
Having offered a radical diagnosis of Britain’s problems, the onus is on the Labour leader to provide radical prescriptions. A pledge to build a million affordable homes, to introduce universal childcare for preschool children and to renationalise the railways all fall into this category. At some stage, this will require Miliband to abandon his reticence and make an open case for borrowing to invest. As long as the Tories are able to accuse Labour of wanting to spend more – and with the opposition unwilling or unable to explain why – the party will struggle to shift the terms of debate in its favour.
 
The Conservatives are fond of deriding Labour’s alleged “35 per cent strategy”, under which a coalition of the party’s core supporters and Lib Dem defectors allow it to crawl over the electoral finish line – but few note the irony that the Tory leadership has now adopted its own version of this game plan. Under heavy fire from the Ukip insurgency, the party has retreated to its core territory of welfare, immigration and Europe.
 
While this might be enough to preserve the Tories’ status as the single largest party, it will not win them the majority they crave. To achieve an overall victory, the party needs to expand its appeal considerably among those groups that have shunned it at the past four elections: ethnic minorities, northerners, Scots and LGBT voters. With the exception of equal marriage, few visible efforts have been made to do so. In January of this year, Tory strategists briefed that Cameron was so concerned at how the issue of race was damaging support for the party that he would address it “head-on with a speech in the next two months”. Yet seven months on, nothing has been heard. Instead, the party has further damaged its reputation with ethnic minorities through a series of demagogic stunts on immigration.
 
Where both the Conservatives and Labour agree is that Britain faces greater problems than at any time since 1979. The long-assumed link between a market economy and rising living standards has been severed and the country’s prosperity has been permanently dented by the financial crisis. Yet neither side has so far offered a persuasive account of how it would govern after 2015. Both proceed with caution as if afraid to reveal their true intentions to voters. But if they want big rewards, they will eventually need to take big risks.
David Cameron and Ed Miliband look on during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.