Ed Miliband takes questions at the Policy Network Conference held in the Science Museum on July 3, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As its poll lead holds, Labour is divided – between those who fear defeat and those who fear victory

The party could inherit a state that, in parts, is on the brink of collapse. 

When Ed Miliband declared before his meeting with Barack Obama at the White House, “I am going because I want to be prime minister of Britain in less than ten months,” he spoke with the conviction of a man who fully believes that he will be. The Labour leader’s self-confidence bewilders those in his party who predict that they will lose in May 2015, but it cannot be dismissed as delusional.

For the fourth summer in a row, the opposition has entered the parliamentary recess ahead in the polls and in the marginal seats that will determine the general election result. There is ill-disguised outrage among Conservatives and parts of the media that Miliband has made it this far. Those who regard him as unfit even to be leader of the opposition find it too painful to contemplate him in Downing Street.

Others, absorbing the data, are adjusting to the prospect of a Labour victory. When I told one Conservative MP that Miliband believes the press onslaught against him is motivated by the fear that he will win, not the belief that he will lose, he replied: “That’s exactly right.” The public admission by the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, that he is planning for negotiations with Labour in a hung parliament offered an insight into the calculations that many Liberal Democrats are making in private. Others are preparing to flee Westminster. There is no mystery as to why Dan Byles, the Conservative MP for North Warwickshire (with a majority of just 54), has become the eighth Tory elected in 2010 to announce that he will not defend his seat.

After 16 months of economic recovery, with GDP surpassing its pre-crisis peak, some Tories expected to have eroded Labour’s advantage by now. But their ratings, like the public’s wages, are flatlining. After briefly drawing level with inflation earlier this year, average earnings are now rising at the slowest rate since comparable records began in 2001. It is partly for this reason that, while trailing on economic management, Labour continues to lead as the party that would most improve living standards. David Axelrod, the Obama strategist hired by Labour, has noted with hope that this is the trend seen during the US president’s defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012.

Yet the moroseness among Labour’s ranks reflects the awareness that the party’s lead has more to do with antipathy for the Conservatives and the Lib Dems than sympathy for the opposition. “The most depressing thing is when people say, ‘We’re just voting for you to stop the Tories,’ ” an MP told me.

Others are finding alternative receptacles for their discontent. Michael Ashcroft’s most recent marginals poll found that Ukip is now in first place in Thurrock (Labour’s number-two target seat) and Thanet South (where Nigel Farage will likely soon announce his candidacy). The Greens are polling at their highest level since 1989. If the election produces a second successive hung parliament for the first time since 1910, it is this fracturing of the anti-government vote that will explain why.

The shared hope of Labour and Tory strategists is that voters will view the election as a binary choice between their two parties. But this summer, both will find themselves on the same side as they unite against Scottish independence. The possibility that the country could vote to secede from the UK on 18 September, after 307 years of union, makes the outcome of the general election appear almost trivial by comparison. But after a significant wobble early this year, Better Together campaigners are increasingly confident of victory, if less certain of achieving the double-digit win they believe is necessary to avoid a “neverendum”.

Most Conservatives are sincere unionists but some privately reflect that another opportunity to tilt the electoral landscape in their favour will have been missed. After the earlier defeat of the proposed boundary changes, Labour will now retain its 41 MPs north of the border (a figure certain to increase next year), while the Tories keep an electorally worthless one.

Provided that Scotland votes against secession, attention will shift to the least predictable election since 1992. Unusually, all three of the main party leaders will be able to tell his autumn conference, with a straight face, to “prepare for government”. But all fear what victory would bring.

For the Tories, it would mean an in/out referendum on the EU that could split the party as no issue has since the repeal of the Corn Laws. For Labour, it could mean inheriting a state that, in parts, is on the brink of collapse: a bankrupt NHS, an imploding housing market (forcing a precipitous rise in interest rates) and a prison system at full capacity, combined with the requirement to accelerate the deepest public-service cuts since the war, or raise taxes by an equivalent amount. “Sometimes I worry more about winning than losing,” one Labour frontbencher tells me.

Others fear an electoral outcome that creates a new crisis of legitimacy for Westminster: the Tories winning the most votes but Labour the most seats; the Lib Dems having fewer voters than Ukip but four times as many MPs; a parliament so hung that neither Labour nor the Tories can form a majority government, even with Lib Dem support. Some MPs are preparing for the possibility of a second general election that perhaps only the Conservatives would have the financial resources to fight adequately.

When not battling each other, all of the parties face a collective struggle to maintain relevance in an age of voter alienation. To most people, Westminster is the place where ignorant armies clash at night. Both Labour and the Tories, the two great tribes that once commanded 97 per cent of the vote between them, will be lucky to scrape home with much more than a third each. In this war of the weak, even the winner could end up feeling like a loser. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.