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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

0800 7318496