The Tories need a better message than "don't let Labour back in"

If the spectre of Gordon Brown alone were sufficient to propel the electorate into Cameron’s arms, he would now be governing with a majority.

There was a period towards the end of 2013, when the Opposition controlled the terms of economic debate. The question to which politics was supposed to have the answer was how the burden of a rising cost of living might be eased (starting with gas and electricity bills).

George Osborne hoped that his Autumn Statement on 5 December would mark the end of that phase. He wants a general return to the topic he prefers and on which he dwells in a speech today – fiscal discipline as the foundation of economic and political credibility.

The message is not new but that’s the point. The Chancellor recognises that his greatest political success this parliament has been persuading enough people that austerity is a necessary consequence of Labour misrule. He now wants to convert that retrospective rhetorical success into a forward-looking campaign. If Labour’s spending habits are the poison, he argues, the antidote cannot possibly be more Labour government. The current plan is working, says Osborne, but more time is needed to finish the job. (This assertion is reinforced with repeated attacks on Labour as the party that lavishes your money on benefit-guzzling foreigners.)

It has been clear that this would be the central argument of a Tory election pitch ever since the Chancellor was forced to abandon his original debt management target in 2012. That was the point at which the "long hard road" metaphor entered Osborne’s lexicon when previously he had hoped to administer a short sharp fiscal shock.

The Tory high command is now pinning its hopes on enduring public reluctance to trust Labour with the nation’s purse. David Cameron is supposed to be the experienced project manager with a reliable plan for economic renovation, while Ed Miliband is the peddler of rickety economic bodges. Central to this proposition is the idea that everything so far has gone according to plan, which is only true if you exclude the first two years of the coalition’s time in government from the reckoning.

Luckily for the Chancellor, there are plenty of conservative commentators who seem content to do just that and Labour’s efforts to pin those long months of stagnation around the government’s neck have failed. Osborne slipped the noose. Another necessary condition for the Conservative strategy to work is that enough voters see a growing economy as compensation for the lean years and so a cause to reward the wisdom incumbent in the Treasury. The Labour view is that they will not. As Ed Miliband’s allies like to point out, a recovery on paper that doesn’t feel like prosperity to most people could reinforce the suspicion that Tories are primarily in the business of helping their rich chums.

Mindful of that hazard, the Chancellor has steered away from the triumphal Tory tone that accompanied the return to positive GDP numbers last year. Today’s speech is all about the need for enduring hardship with a view to long-term salvation. The current advantages of having a Conservative government are posited as stability and incremental improvement. The best is apparently yet to come.

Although this is probably the strongest available line for Osborne, there is a simple contradiction at its heart. If the plan is working, rewards should be imminent. If reward can only be secured by electing a Tory government in 2015, the plan so far can’t have worked. In other words, the Tories want to fight on their record but they also want to defer evaluation of the record until after they have had another term in office. Why should voters grant them that extension? The Conservative answer is that Labour are disqualified by their own recent past. But if the spectre of Gordon Brown alone were sufficient to propel the electorate into Cameron’s arms, he would now be governing with a majority.

The Tories are pretty good at explaining why they think Labour should not be in power but not so good at explaining why Conservatives are the natural and desirable alternative. This is the most consistent weakness of David Cameron’s leadership and I suspect it flows, in part, from a deep-rooted sense of entitlement. It is the expression of the cultural assumption that faute de mieux Britain elects Tory governments; that Prime Ministers such as Cameron are the national default setting. That may have been true for much of the 20th Century but for all manner of reasons – demographic, cultural, economic – I doubt it is true any longer. It wasn’t true in 2010. That is why the Tories only won a partial mandate and are stuck in coalition. That is why they will need a better offer in 2015 than "mission half-accomplished."

George Osborne and Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.