Tories can't master message discipline until Cameron has a clear message

Conservatives struggle to say things that sound like the sort of thing their leader would say.

One thing that has surprised pretty much everyone in Westminster over the past couple of years is the endurance of Labour message discipline. There are occasional bursts of sniping from the sidelines – usually in the form of anonymous briefings and half-reported mutterings by sullen MPs when Ed Miliband seems to be under-performing. Then he makes a clever speech, or the government does something idiotic, and everyone falls neatly back into line. It is really quite impressive for a party that was heavily defeated in 2010 and was supposed, according to the pre-ordained media script, to fall apart in civil strife.

The usual explanation for this unity is that Miliband hasn’t made enough tough policy choices that would open up the divisions that were, according to the now yellowing media script, supposed to yawn wide in 2010. That is partly true – and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should point out that I make that very argument around half-way through this column in the Sunday Times today.

But it is also worth noting that discipline doesn’t come exclusively from policy vagueness. Plenty of Labour MPs are unhappy with the leader’s lack of clarity on a range of issues, but they don’t say so on the record. Indeed, one senior BBC journalist complained to me the other day about how hard it was getting Labour guests on a flagship Westminster programme who might say anything at all to deviate from the official Team Miliband script. That isn’t just vagueness. It is strength of will and determination to win.

By contrast, the Tories simply can’t stick to the lines David Cameron would have them parrot. David Jones, the Welsh Secretary, properly disgraced himself last week by suggesting that gay couples can’t bring up children in a nurturing environment. In theory, Tory divisions on gay marriage have been sanctioned by Downing Street – parliament had a free vote on the issue. But that doesn’t excuse cabinet ministers dribbling out tired and hateful homophobic clichés about the unsuitability of gay men or women for loving family relationships.

If Conservatives were at all loyal to Cameron and truly determined to win an election, they might at least pretend to believe some of the same things their leader does.

Then there is Maria Hutchings, the Tory candidate in the Eastleigh by-election, who was reported last week to have said her son’s ambitions to be a surgeon meant he couldn’t possibly attend a state school. That is surely not how Cameron would have phrased his views on comprehensive education. Hutchings also disagrees with Cameron on gay marriage and has said she would vote to leave the European Union. The Daily Mail recently ran a profile of her as the “off-message” candidate - as if fighting the by-election on a Ukip-lite platform were part of some cunning plan by Tory high command to close off the threat from Nigel Farage and thereby snatch the seat. I don’t buy it. Hutchings was the Tory candidate in 2010 – picked from an “A-list” – when the party was supposed to be modernised, socially liberal, Cameroon.

The fact that she is the candidate again (and it is always a hazard offering voters a meal they have sent back to the kitchen once before) proves only that the Cameron operation didn’t really vet it’s A-list very well and hasn’t been paying much attention to candidate selection since getting into government. But now they’re stuck with Hutchings and are doing their best to make a virtue of her. She might still win, of course, but I imagine Cameron would rather be bringing loyal MPs fashioned in his own image into parliament instead of more “off message” mavericks. I doubt Downing Street chose to withdraw the whip from Nadine Dorries only so they could import Eastleigh’s Dorries tribute act.

Then consider John O’Farrell, Labour’s minor celebrity candidate in Eastleigh. A comedian and writer – surely he would be a liability, firing off message all over the place. But no. Even on Twitter, his wit has been channelled carefully down the appropriate slogan-delivery tubes. On 14th February, he joked:

Fear I have already turned into political robot. Valentines card to wife just said 'Vote Labour in #Eastleigh for a One Nation alternative'.

I suspect that was closer to the truth than he or anyone else in the Labour machine would like to admit. The party is still pretty good at command and control on the ground, especially in a by-election. In one contest recently, I phoned the candidate directly on his mobile to ask what he was up to and was told, quite plainly, that he had no idea but would find out soon enough because his party minders would tell him and steer him in the right direction.

It’s worth noting also how astonishingly disciplined the Lib Dems have been in government, given how cruelly coalition has savaged their opinion poll rating and massacred their local government base. That can’t just be down to party organisation. For one thing, the Lib Dems don’t have enough money to run a ferociously organised party and for another thing, their democratic structures – where everything is supposed to be settled by committee – are positively designed to amplify dissent. As with Labour, the Lib Dem discipline flows from many individual efforts of sheer will. Even if MPs are uncertain about the leader’s line, they stick with it in public.

But for that to work, there has to be a line to take. Whether they agree with Miliband or not, Labour MPs have a pretty clear sense of where he is coming from and what he is trying to do. They understand the “too far, too fast” message on the economy and they broadly understand how “One Nation Labour” is a soft social-democrat fudge to make everyone feel good about the future without making specific commitments to reduce public services in austere times. They may not think that is the best strategy, but they can do it if a microphone is put in front of them.

Likewise, the Lib Dems know the plan is to present themselves as more economically responsible than Labour and more compassionate than the Tories. They know what it is they are supposed to have achieved in government and how it is meant to have tamed the wilder excesses of fanatical Conservative back benchers. They may not think it is enough, but they know the script.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for the Tories. Naturally they can defend government policy when asked to do so but that isn’t the same as defending David Cameron’s policy. He supports gay marriage and very much wants Britain to stay in the European Union, for example. It is hardly news that many Conservatives don’t agree with their leader on certain totemic cultural matters. What I find remarkable is how unwilling they are to keep quiet about it and how rubbish the Number 10 machine is at keeping a lid on unhelpful noise.

The root of the problem – and one explanation for different patterns of behaviour in different parties – is that there are two elements to message discipline. Yes, MPs need to be disciplined, but leaders also need to know what their message actually is to begin with.

Conservative candidate in Eastleigh, Maria Hutchings. Source: Getty

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

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.