Leader: Politics is shrinking at a time when grand vision is required

Miliband is running out of time to convince voters that he offers something better than the Tories' pessimism.

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.

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Getty
Show Hide image

However Labour do on Thursday, Jeremy Corbyn's still the right leader

When the Blairites talk about winning by appealing to the country, what do they mean?

Commentators have spent the last few weeks predicting exactly what will happen on Thursday and, more importantly, what the results will mean. One thing is certain: no matter what the Labour party achieves, Jeremy Corbyn’s position is safe. Not only is the membership overwhelmingly supportive of the leader, but also Blairites would be foolish to launch an attack with the European referendum just over a month away.

So whatever happens on Thursday, Jeremy Corbyn’s position will be as secure as it is at this exact moment in time. I want to go further than explaining simply why whatever happens on Thursday will not spell the end for the Labour leader by arguing why, in any case, it should not.

Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party with an astonishing mandate. Paid-up Labour party members, Labour supporters and Labour affiliates gave this to him. Polling consistently showed that the ability to ‘win’ elections was not the reason people voted for Jeremy. I don’t think that the Labour leader’s opponents are accurate in suggesting that this is because Labour supporters are self-confessed losers. In many ways we are the realists.

I am perfectly aware of the current political ground. The country is largely opposed to accepting more refugees. People who rely on state benefits have been stigmatised. Discrimination is rampant within our society. A majority of people are found to oppose immigration. So when the Blairites talk about winning by appealing to the country, what do they mean exactly? I’m sure that even Liz Kendall would not have mounted an election campaign that simply appealed to the way issues were seen in the polls.

Jeremy Corbyn inherited an uphill battle; he didn’t create it. Anyone who suggests so is shamelessly acting so as to discredit his leadership. Labour’s message is of equality and solidarity. Our party proudly stands as an institution that seeks to pull down the barriers that bar the less privileged from achieving. But when the nation is gripped by the fear of the ‘other’ and man has been pitted against woman in a war of all against all how can Labour’s message break through?

The answer is time. Labour needs time to rebuild and assess the situation on the ground. Labour needs time to talk to people. Labour needs time to change the frame of the debate and the misleading narrative that the Tories are proud to spout because it wins them votes. The Labour party is better than that. We have to be better than that. If we are not then what is the point in the Labour party at all?

The idea that Jeremy Corbyn could possibly change the entire narrative of the nation in 8 months is laughable. But he has started to. People have seen through the Tory lies of helping those in work get on. People have seen the government cut support for the poor while giving to the rich. At the same time they have been fed lies about the Labour leader. Jeremy Corbyn is an extremist. Jeremy Corbyn is too radical. Jeremy Corbyn is a friend of terrorists. Jeremy Corbyn wants to disband the army. Jeremy Corbyn wants to talk to ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn hates Britain. And so on.

In such an environment how is it surprising that after just 8 months Labour may not make huge gains across the country? It is likely that people will call for Jeremy to resign. When they do, ask what Andy, Liz or Yvette would have done differently. They would have needed time too.  

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.