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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear