As the House of Commons rises for the summer recess, British politics remains hung. Labour’s opinion poll lead is softening and the party remains untrusted to manage the economy. Ed Miliband has exceeded the expectations of his detractors but the public does not yet view him as a future prime minister. More profoundly, the so-called social-democratic moment that many on the centre left predicted would emerge out of the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s has not materialised. Mr Miliband frequently invokes the spirit of 1945 and the achievements of the Attlee government but in a less collectivist and more sceptical age he is struggling to win voters round to his more egalitarian vision. The forces of globalisation preclude the development of a Thatcher-style, counter-hegemonic project in one country.
The Conservative Party continues to struggle in the north of England and Scotland – electoral wastelands for the party since its 1997 defeat – and among those groups that denied it outright victory last time round, most notably public-sector workers (just 23 per cent of whom would vote for the party) and ethnic minorities. While ostensibly focused on securing a majority, the Tories have tacitly resorted to a core vote strategy aimed at maximising the possibility of a hung parliament and a second term of coalition government.
To achieve overall victory, both of the main parties would need to defy recent history. In the case of Labour, no opposition has returned to power at the first attempt with an overall majority in more than 80 years. In the case of the Tories, no governing party has increased its share of the vote since 1974, or since 1955, if we discount those that had not served a full parliamentary term. But in an age of voter promiscuity, it remains conceivable that either Labour or the Conservatives could take a decisive advantage before May 2015.
If both parties are to stand a chance of doing so, they will need to eschew the politically tempting but electorally ruinous option of pandering to their bases. For Mr Cameron, confronted by an increasingly doctrinaire conservative movement and a right-wing English press that increasingly shows all the characteristics of Fox News in the US, this remains a permanent struggle. If the “loony left” consigned Labour to opposition in the 1980s, today it is the rabid right that threatens to inflict the same fate on the Tories.
Too many Conservatives persist in believing that a Randian brew of Europhobia, austerity economics and tax and welfare cuts will be enough to deliver them victory. But others in the party are beginning to think more imaginatively about how to expand support for the Tories in areas where voting Conservative has acquired a status similar to that of an eccentric hobby.
In a new collection of essays, Access All Areas, the new Conservative campaign group Renewal has outlined a series of practical measures aimed at winning over northern voters, ethnic minorities and low-income workers. Founded by David Skelton, a former deputy director of Policy Exchange, it calls for a significant increase in the minimum wage, stronger anti-monopoly laws, a mass housebuilding programme and an end to “overzealous rhetoric” against public-sector workers and trade unionists (whom Mr Skelton proposes should be offered free membership of the party). If embraced by the Conservative leadership, it is an agenda that could revive support for the Tories among groups that Labour has too often taken for granted.
Mr Cameron’s party holds just 20 of the 124 urban seats in the north and the Midlands, but Labour’s vote is even more regionally unbalanced. Outside London, it holds just ten out of a possible 197 seats in the south of England. Here, as elsewhere, Mr Miliband’s mantra of “credibility and difference” is the appropriate one. The party cannot hope to win a majority if it is viewed as fiscally profligate and tolerant of an everhigher social security bill, or if it fails to offer a compelling vision beyond austerity. Having pledged to match the Tories’ current spending limits and to impose a cap on “structural welfare spending”, Mr Miliband has taken significant steps towards meeting the first objective but Labour’s wider agenda remains inchoate.
Rather than seeking to convert voters to his abstract vision of “responsible capitalism”, as Mr Cameron tried and failed to do in the case of “the big society”, Mr Miliband should adopt a laser-like focus on the group he identified early on as “the squeezed middle” and promote policies to empower them. Having wisely left open the possibility of borrowing more to invest in capital projects, he must begin to outline how Labour would use this fiscal flexibility to stimulate growth and increase employment. The party must at all costs avoid the appearance of believing in deficit-financed spending for its own sake. A pledge to build a million houses over five years, the level required to meet present need, would give meaning to the rhetorical insistence that “there is an alternative” and outflank the Conservatives.
In the form of their vulgar attacks on benefit claimants and public-sector workers, the Tories no longer seek to disguise their strategy of divide and rule. But as the general election approaches, time is short for Mr Miliband to convince voters to resist the lure of pessimism.