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.
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left