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Miliband’s turn as a street preacher is hampered by his lack of disciples

The Labour leader is meant to be capturing the mood of the country as it turns away from the Tories. Instead, he’s picking up Ukip’s moody leftovers.

Politicians face a simple choice when the public disagrees with them: yield or defy. They can bend policy to suit opinion polls or reinforce the unpopular case in the hope of changing minds. The worst thing to do is to try both and succeed at neither. That is Labour’s approach to a range of issues, most notably welfare.

Every survey shows British hearts hardening against the benefits system. It is believed to promote idleness and fraud. That suspicion allows George Osborne to take money away from some of the least fortunate people in the country and present it as justice – a purge of waste and a restoration of the proper balance between effort and reward.

The chutzpah of it enrages the left. The Tory strategy exploits the public’s inflated view of how much milking of the system goes on and how much it costs. Ministers mangle statistics and cite the most perverse cases – the apocryphal family of lager-soaked layabouts squatting in mansions at taxpayers’ expense – as if they were typical. Many benefit cuts won’t even save the exchequer money. Taking support away from penniless people creates social emergencies that end up costing more in the long run.

That provokes much of Labour into defiance. Surely, the argument goes, the evidence can be fashioned into a sword for slaying the propaganda beast? If people believe Osborne, it must be because the right-wing media are peddling lies or because the gruesome effect of the cuts isn’t yet visible. The passage of time is invoked as Ed Miliband’s secret weapon.

A similar line of thinking sustains Labour in another argument it isn’t winning – the one about austerity. On 26 June, Osborne will set out his spending plans for the year 2015-2016. Labour will be challenged to say whether it would spend more and, if so, how such generosity might be funded.

Ed Balls’s response is that the cuts are a symptom of economic failure and that this latest Spending Review wouldn’t be necessary at all if the Chancellor had managed to grow the economy. It is a variation of the old line “We wouldn’t start from here” – and it fails to convince because everyone knows that a Labour government would face grim fiscal dilemmas wherever it started from.

Labour strategists point out that no sensible opposition declares its spending strategy two years before a general election. Why should Miliband debate on terms dictated by a chancellor whose judgement has been audited by independent economists and proven dud? That invites the counter-question: why, given that Osborne is a neon-lit disaster factory, have the terms of debate shifted so little? Whose job is it to shift them?

Miliband has the same problem discussing the economy as he has with welfare. Many voters think that Labour is to blame for the mess and he disagrees. People think that Gordon Brown spent too much money, especially on benefits. Miliband doesn’t accept those charges but nor does he enjoy rebutting them. He tries to shuffle past them. He concedes that a future Labour government would have to spend less than the last one but doesn’t say on what. He says that Labour would guarantee jobs for people capable of working and dock their benefits if they refuse.

He gives the impression of a man itching to change the subject when asked to show contrition over something for which he feels no apology is due.

It isn’t working. Even some Miliband loyalists complain that the party line on benefits is bombing on the doorstep. They meet enraged voters who work for dwindling wages and hate subsidising the family with their feet up next door. Osborne’s mobilisation of that fury may be cynical but he isn’t making it up. Labour MPs report that the “jobs guarantee” doesn’t placate fuming punters.

It doesn’t help that party morale has taken a knock in recent weeks. Miliband has been buffeted by advice from people who can diminish his authority just by airing a view in public. Tony Blair warned against lefty comfort zones; the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, warned against Blairism. The resurgence of these old antagonisms needn’t have been so destabilising. They furnish an opportunity for Miliband to clarify his identity – to reaffirm the message that he is neither “New” nor “Old” Labour but something different, something fresh. But what? The undercurrent of dread I detect in the Labour ranks flows not from the feeling that Miliband belongs to the wrong faction but from the sense that his whole project is becalmed.

The Labour leader can charm voters individually. He is witty and engaging on the campaign trail, although those qualities refuse to come across on television. A bit more animal magnetism wouldn’t go amiss but what Labour people crave most is the sense that Miliband is winning the big arguments, shifting the terms of debate – and more than just one voter at a time. His leadership is based on the claim to have foreseen a great change in the climate of British politics. He is meant to be capturing the mood of the country as it turns away from the Tories. Instead, he’s picking up Ukip’s moody leftovers.

Miliband’s “one-nation” Labour is soft-left evangelism. It sells optimism and solidarity as the antidote to division and despair. Yet the basic requirement of an evangelist is the ability to instil faith and win converts. Miliband too often cuts the lonely figure of a preacher with a restless congregation and not enough disciples.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.