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Ed Miliband must learn that change can scare people

Politicians love a change narrative - it's uplifting. But the dominant mood now is of pessimism and fear, and Labour must adapt accordingly.

Change is no longer the currency of politics – security is. That is the message, or at least one of the messages, that emerged from Barack Obama’s re-election. As the post-mortem continues and the corpse of the Romney campaign is dissected, one fact is being overlooked: it was Mitt Romney, not Obama, who pilfered, if not quite seized, the mantle of change.

We know that not because of Romney’s hubristic claims, but because Obama’s own supporters conceded as much. After the first presidential debate they were unequivocal. “The first debate really did disrupt the race and presents a painful real-time test of what happens when the president tries to convince people of progress and offer a very modest vision of future change,” reported James Carville and Stan Greenberg. The Los Angeles Times agreed: “All Romney has to do, by contrast, is propose a credible change in direction. He’s done that, proposing across-the-board cuts in tax rates, an overhaul of the tax code and deep reductions in federal spending. His plan won’t appeal to Democrats, and there are plenty of analysts and economists who doubt that Romney can make the numbers work. But he’s not proposing to stay the course set by Obama, that’s for sure.”

The Fabian deputy general secretary, Marcus Roberts, who enjoys good links with the Obama team and worked on Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, contrasted Obama’s strategy with the old Lee Atwater maxim “Choose the ditch you’re gonna to die in”. “Consider this,” he wrote on the Fabians’ website, “Chicago started with attack on Mitt, went briefly positive in May, went back to attack, went positive at the convention and then went to a different type of attack. Then, last week the TV ads were back to bashing Bain. Now, the campaign says Obama will close positive. That’s a lot of different ditches.”

It was, but despite abandoning the moral high ground, scrambling from foxhole to foxhole and ceding the hopey-changey thing to the Republicans, Obama won, comfortably.

Feel the fear

Politicians love a change narrative. It’s uplifting. It reminds them why they came into politics in the first place. But in the present economic and political climate, it is also a recipe for disaster. The popular mood – both here and in the States – isn’t of hope and optimism but pessimism and fear.

A survey by Havas Media testing voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidates’ ability to help society as a whole and them as individuals came up with what the pollster termed “atrocious” results. Asked whether the candidates would “help make my life easier”, “help me live a better or fuller life” or “help me be a more responsible citizen”, no more than 32 per cent of respondents agreed it applied to either Romney or Obama.

But this was never going to be the election for a march on the sunlit uplands, and Obama recognised that. His campaign adverts weren’t promising change you could believe in, they were bombing Romney back to the political Stone Age: on Bain, on tax, on the “47 per cent”. Even more importantly, the campaign portrayed Obama not as the great reformer, but as the great protector. Your factory was under threat, he’d make sure it stayed open. Your son or daughter was serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, he would bring them safely home.

Understandably, some people are wary about drawing parallels with events across the Atlantic – but up until now they haven’t been sitting in Ed Miliband’s office.

The Labour leader’s election strategy is based on the cast-iron belief that 2015 will be an Obamastyle “change election”. Indeed, this past week Miliband aides were approvingly circulating an article by Dan Corry for Policy Network which argued that a Labour win required “a strategy that has the current of realism running through it, but that also has an uplifting sense of optimism . . . If the centre left does not give people the hope that through purposeful action we can build growth and a better world, then our appeal will always be less than that of our opponents.”

This is more to do with the politics of convenience than the politics of hope; anything allowing Team Miliband to divert attention from the need for cuts is pounced upon. Yet there is a firm – and dangerous – perception that Miliband’s vaulting rhetoric and expansive “One Nation” vision will inevitably trump David Cameron and his crude “We’re finally back on track. Don’t let Labour wreck it” messaging.

Some around Miliband are alive to the dangers. Jon Cruddas continues to push his “we are the [small c] conservatives now” message patiently, with some effect. The battle lines inside the shadow cabinet are morphing from Old v New Labour to radicals v conservationists.

But Labour is still leaning on too many of Romney’s discredited certainties. That a poor economy would undermine his opponent fatally. That early negative definition could easily be redrawn. Crucially, that hope and change would trump fear and the status quo.

Mitt Romney represented change all right. And it scared people. The American electorate, like the British electorate, has had enough upheaval and uncertainty. What Americans hunger for is a period of stability.

Barack Obama recognised that, which is why he ran successfully as the security candidate. And whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband recognises it will determine which of them receives a congratulatory phone call from the president on election morning, 2015.


This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide