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Ed’s in trouble with Leveson

There is growing wariness in Labour ranks about where the phone-hacking debate is heading.

Hugh Grant is starting to annoy people. “Who does the guy think he is?” one exasperated shadow cabinet member asked me. “Ed’s basically been out there, he’s taken a huge political gamble on hacking, and Grant is threatening all sorts if we don’t sign up to every dot and comma of Leveson.”

Another Labour MP expresses similar frustrations about Hacked Off, the actor’s anti-News International campaign vehicle. “When they were going out front with the Dowlers they had the public with them. Since they’ve started focusing on the celebrities, people are starting to switch off. It’s been a strategic mistake.”

There is growing wariness in Labour ranks about where the phone-hacking debate is heading. So far it has proved the making of Ed Miliband. It transformed perceptions of his leadership, unsettled David Cameron to the extent that questions were asked about his political survival and placed a series of judicial time bombs under the coalition.

Part of the concern for Labour is that the issue of a new regulatory regime for the British media is very clearly on Cameron’s radar. Recent months have brought a sudden stiffening of the Tories’ position on Lord Leveson and his inquiry. Even the Prime Minister has started making ambiguous noises when asked if he will implement the findings in full. “We don’t want heavy-handed state intervention,” he said last month. “We’ve got to have a free press; they’ve got to be free to uncover wrongdoing, to follow the evidence, to do the job in our democracy they need to do.”

Then there was the surprise promotion of Jeremy Hunt to Health Secretary in September’s cabinet reshuffle, a calculated V-sign to those who had claimed revelations of Hunt’s proximity to News International had ended his political career. And on Sunday, Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, made a well-timed intervention on Sky News. “We should be very, very, very reluctant to take on legislation,” he said. “It’s a balance and my view is that we should always balance in favour of a free press.”

There is alarm in the shadow cabinet that Labour is being forced down a cul-de-sac and has no strategic endgame. With the public interest in phone-hacking dissipating, the worry is that the Tories will outmanoeuvre Labour by signing up to parts of Leveson but stopping short of full statutory regulation.

That scenario does not just give Labour presentational problems: some MPs baulk at the prospect of fighting the next election with a manifesto commitment to introduce stiff regulation and therefore bringing the party into conflict with the press.

Red lines

Miliband is alive to the danger and has despatched Harriet Harman to open up a “one-on-one dialogue” with various newspaper editors to identify “red-line” areas. Harman is said to ensure that the discussions include a reminder that she once got prosecuted for leaking sensitive information to the media.

In truth, Miliband’s room for manoeuvre is limited. He has placed great store by his determination to bring a feral press pack to heel. His trusted lieutenant Tom Watson has informed him that he for one will entertain no backsliding from the party in this matter. And Hacked Off still has the leader’s ear.

When I spoke to members of the campaign shortly after they’d met Miliband at the Labour conference, they said he had left them confident he would implement Leveson in full.

Hugh Grant may well be starting to annoy people but he still has the capacity to influence them. And if the Tories are ushering Labour towards a Leveson-inspired cul-de-sac, Miliband appears to have little choice but to walk into it.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.