David Cameron delivers his speech at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How the Tories plan to attack Labour and Ukip as one

Both parties will be portrayed as unserious and lacking in credibility. 

If the 2015 election was shaping up to be a traditional two-party contest the Tories are in little doubt that they would win. They lead Labour by double-digit margins on leadership and the economy, the two factors that traditionally determine the result. Oppositions have won elections while trailing on one of these measures before (the Tories won in 1979 despite Jim Callaghan being preferred to Margaret Thatcher, and Labour won in 1997 despite lagging the Conservatives on the economy) but none has ever won while trailing on both. 

What makes May 2015 so different is the rise of Ukip. The Tories feel like a superhero that has his old adversary beat but that faces an anarchic joker in the form of Nigel Farage. Ukip's surge in the polls (most Lib Dems now expect to finish behind them on votes), which has largely come at the Conservatives' expense, means that they are being forced to fight a war on two fronts. As David Cameron said recently: "I have a double battle on my hands – I have to win the blue/red fight but I also have to win back people in my own party."

This complicates the crisp and clear message - trust us with the economy and keep Cameron as prime minister - that the Tories want to deliver. But as they look forward to the election, Conservative strategists believe that they have found a way to fight Labour and Ukip as one. As one explained to me, they will portray both as fundamentally unserious parties that lack a credible plan for the country, sowing an equivalent sense of doubt and risk about each. Labour, they will say, has failed to apologise for overspending, and is threatening to borow more, while Ukip is prepared to change its tax policies on a whimBy framing themselves as the "grown ups" prepared to level with the voters, they hope to see off Miliband and Farage in one sweep. 

In this regard, the economic slowdown in the eurozone, which George Osborne has warned Britain will not be insulated from (the Treasury expects quarterly growth to fall from around 0.7-0.8 per cent to 0.5-0.6 per cent), could prove politically helpful. A stronger recovery could encourage voters to change captains in the belief that the storm has passed. As one Labour strategist once put it to me: "If they’re saying that the war’s been won, then people might start asking, 'How do we win the peace?'" By making it clear that the battle is not over, and that there is too much at stake to change sides, the Tories hope to survive as the largest party. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.