David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband listen to Angela Merkel addressing both Houses of Parliament earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Splits over Europe show that the Tories are losing – so why doesn’t it feel like Labour is winning?

Some in Labour are in danger of giving the appearance that they believe Cameron’s MPs will do a better job of finishing him off than they can.

It was as the natural party of government that the Conservatives came to be feared and admired. But to MPs returning from the summer recess, the Tories more clearly resemble the natural party of opposition. The final traces of the discipline, pragmatism and ruthless desire to win that allowed them to govern for 57 years of the 20th century seem to be disintegrating.

Confronted by the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip, Labour is struggling to conceal its glee. “A gift from the gods” is how one shadow cabinet minister describes it to me. When Ukip triumphed over the Conservatives in the European elections in May, pushing the party into third place for the first time in a national contest, Labour set its watch and waited for the Tories’ Europe wars to re-erupt. They never did. The truce struck between David Cameron and his party’s cannibalistic tendency held in the face of Farage.

But Carswell’s “treachery” has broken the peace. “We will milk this for all it’s worth,” one Eurosceptic MP promises. Cameron is now under pressure to do precisely whathe hoped to avoid: to declare his EU renegotiation terms and to commit to campaign for withdrawal if he falls short. Carswell’s departure has established a new hierarchy of disloyalty in which opposition to the Prime Minister’s policy ranks some way below outright defection. Those who urge Cameron to use blackmail diplomacy abroad are now deploying it at home.

That the Tories are convulsed by an issue that does not even feature in the top ten of voters’ concerns is a clear sign that the party has lost its winning instincts. Another was the willingness to relinquish the planned boundary changes in return for the abandonment of House of Lords reform. Another still is the decision of so many new MPs in marginal seats (nine) to stand down rather than take their chances with the electorate.

The exodus of 2010-ers both reflects and reinforces the fear of defeat. I am told that Chris Kelly, the latest to announce his departure, was in talks with Ukip about a possible non-aggression pact. His decision and that of Carswell are reminders of what psephologically-minded MPs had already noted: far from bursting, the Ukip bubble is still swelling. To better understand the enemy, staff at CCHQ have been ordered to read Revolt on the Right, Matthew Goodwin’s and Robert Ford’s account of the structural and demographic forces behind the Farageiste ascent.

Labour watches all of this with contentment. After the recriminations that followed last year’s summer of slumber, the mood at the first shadow cabinet meeting of the new term was “buoyant”, in the words of one present. MPs are surprised at the continuing paucity of the Tories’ policy offer and at the absence of attempts to neutralise Labour’s advantage on living standards.

Yet the opposition cannot afford to be sanguine in the face of Ukip’s rise. On the micro level, Farage’s party poses an immediate threat in target seats such as Thurrock and a longer-term one in Labour’s northern fortresses. On the macro level, the ascendancy of a party that trades in cynicism and anti-politics creates a culture ever less hospitable to a social-democratic idealist such as Ed Miliband. The Ukip insurgency has robbed Labour of the energy and momentum that ordinarily accrue to an opposition party on the road to Downing Street. Miliband’s MPs are adept at providing arithmetical accounts of why they will win but, beyond an enduring resentment of the Tories, they struggle to provide political ones. Were it not for the anomaly of a centre-left party stranded in a right-wing coalition, most doubt they would be ahead at all.

The narrowing of the Scottish independence polls is another symptom of the opposition’s weakness. Rather than the prospect of a Labour-led Union after May 2015, it is Alex Salmond’s vision of independence that is enticing the party’s working-class redoubts.

Labour strategists are alive to the danger of winning the election by default, lacking a mandate for bold change and the popular support necessary to sustain a government through another parliament of austerity. The answer will require resolving the divide that has long existed between those who favour a small-target strategy that limits the Tories’ room for attack and those who believe only the promise of a “rupture” with the past will attract voters to Labour. “People aren’t yet convinced that we’re prepared to make the changes required. That’s why they’re playing footsie with Farage,” one shadow cabinet member tells me. To others, the Ukip surge is evidence of the need to offer reassurance, above all else, on the issues of the deficit, welfare and immigration.

The tension is greatest in the case of the NHS. The desire to sustain the health service (the issue on which Labour enjoys its largest poll lead) and to carve potent dividing lines with the Tories competes with the fear that a party devoted to reducing the “cost of living” cannot credibly commit to a rise in general taxation. The solution, combined with a definitive and radical policy on tuition fees, will likely form the centrepiece of Labour’s conference.

In 2011, Miliband told his party: “Don’t believe this stuff about governments losing elections, rather than oppositions winning them. It sounds to me like a consolation prize for opposition leaders that have lost. I’m not interested in consolation prizes.” But rarely in this parliament has it felt more like the government is losing and less like the opposition is winning. Some in Labour are in danger of giving the appearance that they believe Cameron’s MPs will do a better job of finishing him off than they can. Yet the job of defeating a government should not be outsourced or subcontracted. If Miliband wants to wear the crown, he must wield the knife. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.