The Tories that Cameron and Osborne need to listen to

Conservative group Renewal's pledge card calls for an increase in the minimum wage, the building of one million homes, free party membership for trade unionists and action against "rip-off companies".

Free party membership for trade unionists, the building of one million homes over the next parliament, an increase in the minimum wage, a "cost-of-living test" for every policy, a cut in fuel duty and a cabinet minister to "take action for the consumer against rip-off companies". The latest set of demands from Len McCluskey? No. Rather, the six proposals that will appear on a New Labour-style pledge card next week from Renewal, the Conservative group aimed at broadening the party's appeal among working class, northern and ethnic minority voters (the launch of which I covered earlier this year).

The group, led by NS contributor David Skelton, has gone further than any other in recognising that the Tories need to dramatically refashion their agenda if they are to ever win a majority again (a feat that has eluded them for 21 years). The party currently has no councillors in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, and just one seat in Scotland. In 2010, it won the support of just 16% of ethnic minority voters.

If it is to improve on this performance next time round, it needs to depart from its traditional script of Europe, immigration and welfare. Voters might share the Tories' views on these issues but they do not share their obsession with them. To win new supporters, the party needs to adopt a relentless focus on living standards. As Skelton notes, "Traditional Labour voters are disenchanted, lack a natural political home, but do not believe the Conservatives are interested in them. We have got to change that perception. We have got to show that we stand up for ordinary working people, and that we are not the party just of the rich or big business. The six issues on the pledge card are designed to show we are on the side of hard-pressed working people."

So, what are the chances of succcess and how worried should Labour be? Renewal enjoys significant support from senior ministers, including Patrick McLoughlin, who wrote the foreword to the collection, and Eric Pickles, who addressed its launch, as well as MPs such as Robert Halfon and Guy Opperman. Its work is also being studied by George Osborne, who appointed Skelton’s former Policy Exchange colleague Neil O’Brien as his special adviser and whose former chief of staff, Matt Hancock, contributed a chapter on "conservatism for the low-paid" to Renewal's recent pamphlet Access All Areas. Several sources have told me that the party is likely to announce a significant increase in the minimum wage at its conference in Manchester next week in a bid to win over low-income groups.

But less than two years away from the election, time is short for the Tories to detoxify their brand. The decision to cut the top rate of tax, to privatise large parts of the NHS and to demonise trade unionists have all added to the damage. But if Renewal's agenda becomes the party's, the long work of winning a hearing among voters who have shunned it for decades will begin. 

David Cameron speaks during an official reception at Downing Street on September 16, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.