Dark ages: Nick Clegg delivers his speech on the last day of the Lib Dem Party Conference. Photo: Getty
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Leader: British politics is now a war of the weak

The overall impression is of an age of big problems, small ideas and diminished political leaders.

Perhaps at no point since 1974 have both main political parties approached a general election in such a state of weakness. As much as the Conservatives draw comfort from Ed Miliband’s poor leadership ratings, the conspiratorial mutterings about his leadership and his disappointing conference speech in Manchester (an exercise in brinkmanship that did not come off), they are no closer to becoming again the natural party of government.

The main effect of the party conference season has been to confirm that the 2015 election will amount to a war of the weak. Even before Ed Miliband had forgotten to mention the Budget deficit in his speech, polls suggested that Labour had done far too little to assuage anxieties about its economic competence. While David Cameron gave an astute and burnished speech to end his conference on a high – significantly, he read it from a lectern, unlike Mr Miliband, who spoke broadly from memory – the Conservatives are turning right in an attempt to bolster their core vote and head off the threat from Ukip. Polls have repeatedly shown that as much as 40 per cent of the electorate would never consider voting Tory.

As for the Liberal Democrats, whose conference finished in Glasgow on 8 October, Nick Clegg’s party’s identity crisis remains unresolved. Its poll ratings – as low as 6 per cent now – show no sign of an upswing. “Being in the centre could mean being seen as mainstream and common-sense,” the Labour pollster James Morris wrote in a widely noticed blog on newstatesman.com. “For the Lib Dems, it means they are seen as a pointless mush.” Harsh, perhaps, but the polls would suggest that many agree with him.

The overall impression is of an age of big problems, small ideas and diminished political leaders.

However, it is possible to detect an emerging consensus on the need for greater infrastructure investment and housebuilding; further devolution, to both Scotland and the English regions; and for a higher minimum wage to reduce what the state spends on subsidising low pay. But there is consensus of a less welcome kind: that further austerity could be confined to aspects of society unpopular in the parties.

In truth, the next government will not be able to remove the deficit merely by increasing taxes on the wealthiest, or by cutting benefits further for the poor and not raising taxes. What is required, above all else, is clear-headed honesty about the deficit, pragmatism and a national plan for reconstruction and renewal. Alas, none of the parties is offering any such thing.

One of the dominant themes of 2014 has been the continued fracturing of our politics and the weakness of the British state. It was evident in Ukip becoming the first party from outside the Labour-Tory duopoly to win a national election since 1910. It was evident, too, in the energising independence campaign in Scotland and the remarkable surge in Scottish National Party membership, which has quadrupled to 100,000 since 18 September.

British politics today is not about two, three or even four parties: add in the Greens, now tying with the Lib Dems in many polls, and Plaid Cymru in Wales, and the 2015 election will be as far from a two-party choice as is possible, with different dynamics in most seats. The psepho­logists’ idea of a “uniform swing” has never seemed more archaic.

Market capitalism desires choice in all walks of life, and now belatedly we have it in our politics, too. The centre cannot hold. The nation state is fragmenting. The snag is that we have a Westminster electoral system designed for the two-party age. Which could mean that an “alliance of the defeated” – a Labour Party that finished second in the popular vote and a Liberal Democrat party fourth – is the only viable coalition after 2015. The alternative is a minority government that might last as long as the Wilson government that was formed in March 1974 (a second general election in October that year resulted in a three-seat majority for Labour).

Yet would such a weakened alliance be capable of delivering the wide-ranging economic, social and constitutional reform that the United Kingdom urgently requires? 

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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