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

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.