Three people wear masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg at the Toy Fair 2015 in London on 20 January, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour and the Tories aren’t the same - so why do voters still think they are?

The ideological differences between the parties are greater than for decades. But their shared culture means few have noticed. 

There is one point on which Ukip, the SNP and the Green Party agree: the problem with Labour and the Conservatives is how alike they are. All three deploy the hackneyed charge that not a “cigarette paper” would pass between them.

At times in British politics this claim has appeared plausible. Around 2006 and 2007, the ideological terrain on which Labour and the Tories fought was microscopically small. For fear of being viewed as anti-business, the former would not propose tax rises on the wealthy. For fear of being viewed as anti-state, the latter would not propose cuts in public spending (agreeing in September 2007 to match Labour’s expenditure levels for three years). The portmanteau “Blameronism” was coined to describe the banal consensus between the two parties, just as “Butskellism” stood for that of the postwar era. It felt as if politics had been reduced to a contest between rival management teams, rather than a clash of ideologies. 

It was the crash that brought this era to a close. By ending the illusion of permanent growth, it resurrected the distributional questions rendered irrelevant by the boom. As a result of the shrinking economy, it was no longer possible for Labour and the Conservatives to pledge to avoid both tax rises and spending cuts: choices had to be made.

The two parties have made different ones ever since. In the months that followed the crash, the Tories opposed Labour’s fiscal stimulus and relinquished their commitment to match the government’s spending plans. Gordon Brown broke the decade-long taboo on increasing the top rate of income tax by raising it first to 45 per cent and then to 50 per cent. Politicians retrieved the works of Keynes and Hayek from the shelves where they had long gathered dust.

After 2010, the gap between the two parties grew wider still. Labour elected Ed Miliband as its leader. His defining aim was to overturn the 30-year consensus against market intervention. In office, David Cameron proved more radical than his emollient manner and One Nation rhetoric suggested, unleashing the private sector in areas where Margaret Thatcher had feared to tread.

Most in Westminster agree that the ideological distance between the two parties is now greater than at any time since 1992 and possibly earlier. Labour would restore the 50p rate, introduce a mansion tax, roll back privatisation, maintain Britain’s membership of the EU and impose spending cuts of about £7bn. The Tories would avoid tax increases on the wealthy, extend privatisation, stage a referendum on whether to leave the EU and impose cuts of about £33bn. When Britons go to the polls on 7 May, they will be offered two vastly different conceptions of the country’s future.

The irony is that ever fewer recognise this. The charge that the main parties are “all the same” is levelled with far greater frequency now than in the age of Blameronism. The Greens and Ukip, largely irrelevant until this parliament, flourish as more authentic representatives of left and right respectively. This paradox is partly explained by the degree of policy overlap that remains. None of the main parties has pledged to reject the free movement of people within the EU (as Ukip has), to abandon Trident (as the SNP has), or to end austerity (as the Greens have). Miliband has noted how “the bar” has been continually “raised” as policies once viewed as daringly radical are quickly becoming normalised. Cameron could say much the same in the case of immigration and Europe. His pledge to stage an EU referendum – a first for a Conservative leader – was simply banked by his party’s Brussels-bashers.

If the bar has been raised, some will argue that the answer is to jump higher. It would no longer be surprising if at least one of the candidates in the next Conservative leadership contest advocated withdrawal from the EU, or if a member of Miliband’s shadow cabinet, most likely Andy Burnham, ran to his left in a Labour equivalent.

But even if one assumes this represents an answer, it is a partial one at best. When voters cry, “You’re all the same!” they are rarely referring to policy. Their complaint instead reflects how indistinguishable politicians seem in appearance, manner and accent. It reflects a disdain for the wearying cycle of rebuttal and counter-rebuttal. Politicians may be on different teams but they are still playing the Westminster equivalent of the wall game. Intellectually, Miliband stands outside of the consensus but because of his orthodox career path, he continues to be seen as a creature of the establishment. Neil O’Brien, the former head of Policy Exchange who now serves as an adviser to George Osborne, was told in one focus group that the Labour leader went to Eton.

Voters’ alienation from Westminster derives less from policy than it does from culture. One of the first MPs to recognise this was Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour’s policy review. For this reason, he is perhaps the party’s most redoubtable champion of English devolution and movement politics. Voters will not be assuaged by “retail offers” handed down from on high. Labour must rebuild itself from the bottom up, a point that community-focused MPs such as Lisa Nandy, Stella Creasy and Alison McGovern have brilliantly grasped. The same is no less true in the case of the Conservatives, a party culturally estranged from the blue-collar voters on whom its past majorities depended.

With so few switching between the big two, Labour and the Tories are locked in comparable struggles to squeeze their smaller opponents. But just as the causes of their rise are not short-term, so the solutions will not be either. As one Scottish Labour MP told me in the case of the SNP: “Our biggest opponent is time.” The danger is that an inconclusive election result, produced by a voting system incapable of reflecting individual preferences, will only widen the gulf between Westminster and the rest.

  • Now listen to George Eaton discuss the difference between Labour and the Tories on the NS podcast:

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re,

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA