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No man’s land

As the local and mayoral elections approach, a curious phenomenon has become apparent: the Tories ar

Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband are haunted by elections that they only kind of won. The Conservative leader emerged from the 2010 general election as Prime Minister, which fits most candidates’ definition of a good result. But he failed to secure a majority in parliament and needed a bunk-up from Nick Clegg to take possession of his prize. Four months later, the Labour leadership was awarded to a candidate who was the first choice of neither his MPs nor his party members. Trade union block votes nudged Miliband over the line.

Neither man has properly confronted their flawed mandates. The election of 6 May 2010 is a taboo topic on Downing Street, like a first-night flop, mention of which undermines the leading actor’s claim to stardom. There is discussion in Cameron’s inner circle of what might be required to win a Tory majority next time but the failure to manage it against Gordon Brown – one of the most beatable incumbents in recent history – has never been subjected to a forensic post-mortem.

Meanwhile, 25 September 2010 is hardly a cherished memory in the Miliband camp. With a victory margin of 0.65 per cent and Conservative newspapers draughting caricatures of bolshie union barons pulling the strings, the new leader’s inauguration was more defensive crouch than triumphal march. As one source inside the Miliband operation at the time puts it: “What should have been his biggest moment of triumph was seen by people in the campaign as his biggest moment of threat.”

To be a proven winner is a vital advantage in politics denied to the leaders of the two main parties. That feeds the growing sense in Tory and Labour ranks that, at some level, discernable beneath the fluctuating tide of opinion polls, both sides are losing.

On 3 May, local elections will be held in Scotland and parts of England and Wales, while London, Liverpool and Salford will elect mayors. Ballots like these are always scrutinised for clues about the political climate. Westminster, true to parochial form, will devote obsessive attention to the contest in the capital – a celebrity rematch between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, in which the Tory incumbent has a regular but unstable lead. Glasgow council elections are also under special scrutiny, in case the SNP disrupts generations of Labour hegemony.

Safe bets are on a low turnout and a medium-scale massacre of Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors. An uninspired electorate will inflict mid-term punishment on the coalition, mostly to Labour’s advantage, but without heralding a Milibandite march towards Downing Street.

British politics has rarely felt so bogged down. These are times of vast potential upheaval, characterised by a rolling economic crisis abroad and, at home, a Budget squeeze that demands redefinition of what government is for. Yet the political mood is a paradoxical mix of superficial frenzy and underlying stasis. The Tories are losing; Labour isn’t winning. Stalemate.

George Osborne’s 2012 Budget, its place secure in the pantheon of political misjudgements, signalled the start of a slide in Tory poll ratings. The government’s economic message was once crisply defined: surgery on the national finances to cut out Labour rot. Now, it is blurred by a bunch of footling tax rows (pasties, grannies, caravans, charities, conservatories) and one tax blunder – cutting the top rate for those earning more than £150,000 per year. The Prime Minister has lost control of the argument about his motives. An argument for rewarding the aspiration to make money might have been winnable in tax-phobic Britain, but not when the leading exponents are vulnerable to the charge of doling out cash perks to billionaire buddies.

The impression of an administration dedicated to the service of rich patrons is reinforced by revelations from the Leveson inquiry into press standards. Most voters will not study the detail of Cameron’s intimacy with the Murdoch family to establish whether or not it counts as corruption. The background hum of corporate clubbiness is alienating enough.

Meanwhile, the sheer length of time it is taking Downing Street to regain command of the news agenda has become part of the story. Tory MPs have watched in horror – plus some gratification fed by years of resentment at Cameroon smugness – as the Prime Minister’s spin machinery has sputtered and misfired. Prolonged mismanagement covers the government in deadly ridicule. The Home Office’s self-satirising struggle to decode a calendar, thereby failing to ensure the timely deportation of a terror suspect, has not helped. The spring shambles has seen the Tories slide 10 points behind Labour in some opinion polls.

The opposition ought to be jubilant but isn’t. Miliband was badly stung by defeat in Bradford West. The Respect party’s George Galloway trounced the Labour candidate with a mixture of canny religious-ethnic agitation and crude, leftist populism. The result showed how Labour’s national opinion-poll advantage ­expresses a default monopoly on opposition, without describing any enthusiasm for the Miliband project. Public hostility to all Westminster parties is such that, at local level, a well-organised vehicle for anti-establishment feeling can scoop up votes by the bucketful.

The generous interpretation of Miliband’s position is that he has already led a remarkable comeback. Two years ago, Brown netted La­bour’s lowest national vote share since Michael Foot’s 1983 drubbing. Now, double-digit leads over the Tories are restored. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have surrendered their share of the country’s anti-Tory vote – that stubborn rump of the electorate, mostly in the north of England and Scotland, that is culturally inoculated against Conservative campaign messages. Cameron’s failure to change its mind was the crucial factor in producing a hung parliament in 2010. Nothing has happened to suggest he will make more progress next time or knows the whereabouts of untapped stores of potential supporters.

Miliband’s strategists refer to this warehousing of protest votes optimistically as “reuniting the progressive alliance”. The plan all along, it is claimed in the leader’s office, was first to stabilise the party, then establish in voters’ minds that the coalition is “out of touch” and failing on the economy. Only once those milestones are passed will the public be primed to receive Labour’s message.

The less flattering view, held privately by many Labour MPs and shadow ministers, is that Miliband has benefited from the electoral windfall of left-leaning Lib Dem refugees and bought a brittle kind of unity in his own ranks by deferring difficult policy choices. “We’ve got as far as we can mining the seam of Lib Dem disaffection,” says one shadow cabinet minister. “We haven’t established a strong enough alternative.”

Dwindling hopes

One concern is that Miliband and Ed Balls are relying too heavily on vindication by macroeconomic circumstances. The economy is shrinking and the national debt rising, which is the opposite of what Osborne said  would happen. Balls warned that aggressive fiscal retrenchment risked stifling growth and the economy has duly double-dipped. A flash of “I told you so” is well earned. But  that does not automatically restore public confidence in Labour as stewards of the national finances.

The Chancellor’s calculations have gone so badly awry that honouring the Budget constraints he has  set himself will now mean cutting still deeper into public spending this side of an election. Another spending review, perhaps in  autumn 2013, will test coalition unity as Tories and Lib Dems debate different angles from which to pick voters’ pockets all over again. (Long gone are hopes of rewarding national stoicism with a pre-election giveaway.)

But the exercise is laden with hazards for Labour, too. Miliband and Balls must by then have made some strategic choices about their own tax and spending priorities and outlined some ideas about how to reform public services so they work better on leaner budgets. Those decisions will test the new-found unity, provoking cries of betrayal from those on the left who see all pledges of fiscal responsibility as complicity in a Thatcherite plot.

Stalking these discussions is the spectre of Neil Kinnock’s poll lead over the Conservatives; falsely reassuring, evanescent. Miliband cannot win an election without appealing to those parts of Britain that backed John Major in 1992 despite recession, despite high unemployment – people who were relaxed about the legacy of Tory rule that so many on the Labour side assume to be self-evidently wicked.

The Tories draw much comfort from that. They see Miliband as a Kinnock figure, whose appeal is discernible only to the tribal left. In No 10, they talk about the Labour leader having “failed the blink test” – the instinctive judgement that ordinary voters make about a candidate’s plausibility.

Not everyone around the Prime Minister is convinced and there is rising concern the La­bour threat is underestimated. One senior adviser bemoans “extraordinary levels of compla­cency” about Miliband. “It’s like Macbeth being told he can’t be killed by a man born of a woman and thinking, ‘Right then, I’m immortal.’”

There has always been a plan B for keeping Cameron in Downing Street in the event that a Tory majority proves unattainable. It involves prolonging coalition beyond the election. After all, the Lib Dems are wedded to an economic strategy that relies on near-constant assertion of Labour’s unsuitability for government. In theory, that makes it tricky to execute a coalition partner swap before the austerity plan is fulfilled. But the Tories are no longer as certain as they once were that Clegg’s party is locked in for the long haul. Budget negotiations, marked by a frenzy of partisan briefings and leaks, have depleted stores of trust. When asked to speculate on the Lib Dems’ options if parliament remains hung after the next election, one Downing Street insider says: “They are cynical fuckers who will do anything to stay in government.”

Such bitterness, say allies of Clegg, is misplaced. Cameron’s real problem is Conservative backbenchers who have resented coalition from the start and who take rather too much pleasure in seeing the hoity Prime Minister and his toity Chancellor taken down a peg or two. “The last few weeks have exposed what a fragile grasp of their party Cameron and Osborne have,” says one Lib Dem cabinet minister.

War of attrition

It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Prime Minister to manage coalition relations and tend to the bruised egos on his own side, while simultaneously designing a governing strategy that will persuade the country he has a workable plan for national renewal. None of those ends is served by Lords reform – the next monstrous battle about to engulf parliament. Clegg insists on it as a liberal trophy to compensate his party for past sacrifices made on the altar of coalition; Tory MPs despise it as vandalism and crave vengeance against the Lib Dems for their various pestiferous obstructions to more red-blooded Conservatism. Labour cannot decide which it likes more: constitutional upgrades or destabilising the government by siding with Tory rebels. It is the apogee of stalemate politics; gruesome trench warfare over dwindling terrain where no voters dwell.

There is something of the Western Front about the battle between Labour and Conservative forces. (The Lib Dems, like Belgium, are overrun.) The two great powers are warring in a fashion that seems blind to the way the world around them is changing. The era in which they extended their now crumbling electoral empires is passing away. They advance and retreat, snatching tactical victories, but neither has a strategy for breaking through the other’s lines.

Miliband does not know how to turn millions of Tory voters into Labour supporters. Cameron has no new ideas for swaying those millions of people who feel sure, now more than ever, that the Conservatives are not on their side. Both leaders are forced by their fragile mandates to lead with a nervous eye trained on the back ranks looking for hints of mutiny. Neither is celebrated by his own side as a natural winner. And so, for want of any better ideas, the two armies exchange fire with flagging morale. They hurl rhetorical shells and march back and forth in fruitless competition for supremacy in no-man’s-land.

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

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master