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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

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.