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

Photo: Getty
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Emmanuel Macron can win - but so can Marine Le Pen

Macron is the frontrunner, but he remains vulnerable to an upset. 

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is campaigning in the sixth largest French city aka London today. He’s feeling buoyed by polls showing not only that he is consolidating his second place but that the voters who have put him there are increasingly comfortable in their choice

But he’ll also be getting nervous that those same polls show Marine Le Pen increasing her second round performance a little against both him and François Fillon, the troubled centre-right candidate. Her slight increase, coming off the back of riots after the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man and Macron’s critical comments about the French empire in Algeria is a reminder of two things: firstly the potential for domestic crisis or terror attack to hand Le Pen a late and decisive advantage.  Secondly that Macron has not been doing politics all that long and the chance of a late implosion on his part cannot be ruled out either.

That many of his voters are former supporters of either Fillon or the Socialist Party “on holiday” means that he is vulnerable should Fillon discover a sense of shame – highly unlikely but not impossible either – and quit in favour of a centre-right candidate not mired in scandal. And if Benoît Hamon does a deal with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – slightly more likely that Fillon developing a sense of shame but still unlikely – then he could be shut out of the second round entirely.

What does that all mean? As far as Britain is concerned, a Macron or Fillon presidency means the same thing: a French government that will not be keen on an easy exit for the UK and one that is considerably less anti-Russian than François Hollande’s. But the real disruption may be in the PR battle as far as who gets the blame if Theresa May muffs Brexit is concerned.

As I’ve written before, the PM doesn’t like to feed the beast as far as the British news cycle and the press is concerned. She hasn’t cultivated many friends in the press and much of the traditional rightwing echo chamber, from the press to big business, is hostile to her. While Labour is led from its leftmost flank, that doesn’t much matter. But if in the blame game for Brexit, May is facing against an attractive, international centrist who shares much of the prejudices of May’s British critics, the hope that the blame for a bad deal will be placed solely on the shoulders of the EU27 may turn out to be a thin hope indeed.

Implausible? Don’t forget that people already think that Germany is led by a tough operator who gets what she wants, and think less of David Cameron for being regularly outmanoeuvered by her – at least, that’s how they see it. Don’t rule out difficulties for May if she is seen to be victim to the same thing from a resurgent France.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.