Ed Miliband speaks to supporters on January 17, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tory modernisers' best hope is an Ed Miliband victory

Being beaten after just one term by a man deemed unelectable would open up space for those who understand the need to reinvent the party.

The British Conservative Party needs shock therapy. It may still scrape back into government in next year's general election but if it does, barring a miracle, it will be on a smaller share of the national vote than in 2010. This has been the case every time its been victorious since 1950. As a growing number within the party recognise, it's reaching a point where things have become unsustainable. Forty per cent of voters now say they wouldn’t even consider voting Conservative, while the party has little base among ethnic minority and working class voters, especially in the north. Once-proud Tory heartlands like Sheffield and Manchester now have not even a single Conservative councillor. As the impressive David Skelton of Renewal has argued, voting Conservative in these parts has become counter-cultural.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the left was forced into a reckoning. It had suffered successive electoral defeats but it had also been intellectually defeated, with the end of the Cold War and shifts in the country's social fabric. The Conservatives have never really undergone such a reckoning, largely because Thatcher was never defeated at the ballot box, mostly thanks to a divided opposition. And so a mythology has grown up and still has hold over the party: that her brand of free market triumphalism won over the whole country, benefited the whole country, and can do so again.

This was always dubious – but has sustained itself even as the impact of her legacy on country and party sews division and resentment, especially in the deindustrialised north, and the "party of the rich" image has been baked in. As a creed, Thatcherism has come to rest on public deference to business elites, a faith that whatever their excesses, their inherent superiority will benefit us all in the end, which has been severely undermined by the financial crisis and flatlining wages.

Moreover, Britain may be a conservative country, with many attracted to Thatcher's ethics of self-reliance and discipline. But few outside the south-east ever shared the values of break-neck economic liberalism to which those ethics gave rise. A lot of people don't like to be made to feel powerless to forces shaping their lives, or like losers for not wanting to be self-made billionaires.

And yet Thatcherism remains the default instinct for much of the party – any departure is usually tactical or skin deep (with the notable exception of gay rights). Contrary to what many on the left think, the Conservative tradition is rich and long pre-dates the neoliberal era, encompassing communitarian and even social democratic schools of thought. Yet these days, any thinking in its ranks which entails fundamentally challenging the Thatcherite comfort zone is tossed aside. If the party get back in to power in 2015, this sleepwalking will continue, even if in its obliviousness it further erodes the electoral ground on which they can be returned.

Increasingly it seems that the only thing that can reverse the trend is Ed Miliband, smiling from the steps of 10 Downing Street. If this sounds like preposterous accelerationist tosh, think about it. Being beaten after just one term by a man the party's leading lights have long deemed unelectable would provoke huge internal recriminations. In this post-mortem there will open up space for those who understand the need to reinvent the party, from top to bottom both ideologically and organisationally; a project that Cameron initially grasped and then retreated from.Even if the initial leadership contest doesn't produce such a candidate, Labour may still rescue the Conservatives with their spell in government – though only if Miliband is as successful as he intends to be.

Unlike his predecessors, the Labour leader has made clear his desire to rework the political economy that Thatcher brought into place and New Labour left largely in tact. If (and it's still a huge if) he is successful, it would re-wire the rules of British politics: towards intervention in markets to make them work for consumers; towards active industrial policy and economic populism. Living standards and wages – reform of the economy to make it deliver for ordinary people - would become the central issues of British politics.

Such ground is the only place from which Conservative renewal can be fought, given the kind of votes they need to win. Were they to move onto it, combined with already potent messages on welfare and crime, they would be a formidable threat. Yet they seem incapable of doing so of their own accord. It's almost certainly too late in this Parliament, having already surrendered so much ground Labour in favour of a much narrower agenda. Increasingly, it seems, they will have to be forced there.

This may still be a little sunny, admittedly. Defeat for the Conservatives could well just result in a prolonged turn to the right and doubling-down, as it did last time. But unlike before, there's a range of intelligent and interesting people in Conservative ranks who understand what the party needs to do to broaden its appeal, and have placed reforming capitalism at the heart of their pitch. Jesse Norman, Skelton at Renewal, and Rob Halfon are just a few. Though currently fighting an uphill battle, they have already laid down a marker for any future battle to come. And who knows, their ascent may yet end up being Miliband's biggest threat, and greatest achievement.

Steven Akehurst blogs at My Correct Views on Everything

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.