If you don't remember this man's gaffe, don't worry, it's Labour's fault not yours. Photo: Getty
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It's competence, stupid: Labour should have done more with the Tories' mistakes

Elections are as much about competence as conviction - Labour should have made more hay with the Coalition's many gaffes.

We live in an era of valence rather than position politics.  Like it or not, most voters prefer good government to grand ideological visions.  This does not mean to say that there is no place for narrative or for values.  But it does mean that both have to be tempered by pragmatism, by a sense that whoever is telling us a story and/or appealing to the better angels of our nature is also capable of getting the basics right.  Governments which don’t quite live up to their ideals are, more often than not, forgiven.  Governments that cock-up big time, less so.

Mistakes, especially if they betoken a loss of control and especially if you make a series of them in short succession, can be fatal – even if you do almost everything right after that.   Labour, for instance, lost the last election not in 2010 but in the autumn of 2007.  First there was ‘the election that never was’, which was followed in quick succession by an immigration scandal, embarrassing confusion over anti-terrorism policy, criticism from defence chiefs, the loss of two discs containing the personal and financial details of millions of families, then the resignation of Labour’s General Secretary over party finances.  Add to that the banking collapse and you have something approaching a perfect storm - one that did so much damage to the reputation of Gordon Brown’s government that no amount of saving the world on his part could save him from the chop when voters headed to the polls a couple of years later.

Labour, it is sometimes suggested, is particularly vulnerable to accusations that it’s incompetent because the charge feeds into a widespread underlying suspicion that, while its heart might be in the right place, the same can’t be said for its head.  As Maurice Saatchi famously observed in the run up to the 1992 election, ‘efficient but cruel’ – the Conservative Party’s basic brand – beats ‘caring and incompetent’ every time.

But ‘particularly vulnerable’ doesn’t mean ‘uniquely vulnerable’: the Tories, too, have a history of losing elections when voters begin to question their competence.  For instance, Ted Heath’s government didn’t lose the February 1974 election because it failed to live up to his proto-Thatcherite ‘Selsdon Man’ promises; it lost because it couldn’t even keep the lights on.  Likewise, in 1997, Ken Clarke’s stellar record as Chancellor could do little or nothing to rescue the Major government, whose reputation for knowing what it was doing had long since been irretrievably trashed not just by Black Wednesday, but by chaos over pit closures, the Maastricht Treaty, sleaze and the single currency.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that Conservative governments are, if anything, even more vulnerable than their Labour equivalents to the charge that they couldn’t run the proverbial whelk-stall.  After all, as Saatchi acknowledged, ‘cruelty’, rightly or wrongly, is already priced into the Tories’ reputation.  ‘Inefficiency’ is a much more serious matter precisely because it is so counter-intuitive, removing what for many floating voters is practically the only reason for voting Conservative.

True, the Coalition got its retaliation in first on the competence front, doing a brilliant job of retrospectively fitting up Miliband and his colleagues on the deficit and the debt while they were otherwise engaged hacking polite but nevertheless distracting lumps out of each other in the Labour leadership contest.

But Labour’s own supposed shortcomings shouldn’t have been enough, over time anyway, to have obscure the Coalition’s countless cock-ups – assorted prisoner escapes, self-inflicted wounds and parliamentary shenanigans on the Health and Social Care Bill, Lords and boundary reform, and Europe, the jerry cans in the garage suggestion to beat a petrol shortage that never came, the chaos at the UKBA and Passports Agency, the selling of Royal Mail for a song, the botched/snail’s pace introduction of Personal Independence Payments and universal credit, the bizarre goings on at the ‘Big Society Network’, not to mention the biggest cock-ups of all, namely the missing by a mile of much-trumpeted targets on net migration and on deficit and debt reduction.

Did you remember – and not just vaguely – each and every one of those items on that charge sheet? If not, you’re not alone.  One of the most common criticisms of Labour between this election and the last is that it’s struggled to come up with a clear picture of what a Miliband government would do – and do differently.  While this may be true, it risks blinding us to an equally important possibility, namely that Labour hasn’t actually been that good at opposition, at least in the sense weaving the Coalition’s myriad mishaps and missed targets into a wider narrative, not (to use Saatchi’s terms) of ‘cruelty’ brought on by austerity but of ‘inefficiency’ rendered inevitable by ideological obsession and a limited grasp of the lives of ordinary people.

Quite how this happened is a something of a mystery, not least because one of Miliband’s best lines came from his 2012 Conference speech, made in the wake, note, of what Labour brilliantly framed as the ‘ominshambles Budget’.  Yes, Labour’s ‘tax cuts for millionaires’ assault on the latter proved potent.  But so, too, did its ridicule of Osborne’s all-over-the-shop attack on pasties, caravans and grannies.  ‘Have you ever seen’, Miliband asked, ‘a more incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, u-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this Government?’

Had we had more of the same from Labour’s leader and his colleagues since then, political historians of the future might have pointed to 2012 as the year the Tories lost the 2015 election.  Unless we hear a lot more of it over the next five weeks, there might be no such defeat for them to explain.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.