In the run-up to the general election, Labour made headway when the Tories were forced on to the ground of cuts and the risk to the economy – and moved backwards when the Tories forced Labour on to the ground of the deficit and cuts. Now that the reality of the cuts and the threat they pose to recovery and a decent society is starting to become apparent, the Tories are experiencing attrition at the polls.
The forest sell-off and other, smaller but significant U-turns – such as over the Booktrust programme – show Cameron and Osborne are vulnerable to opposition and desperate to cling to as much of their electoral base as possible.
It is obvious why.
One, because the government’s agenda is so brutal that it knows it cannot fight on all fronts at once, and needs to remove unnecessary noise and rows. Its problem is that there are so many cuts and reckless decisions that when one hole in the dam is plugged, another bursts open.
Two, because what the government fears most is that many more of those on middle incomes and even some on higher incomes will conclude that the government is wrong, out of touch and cutting too far and too fast.
The government fears that significant parts of its own potential electoral base may be turned against it. The forest sell-off was so damaging because it united opinion right the way through to parts of the country that should usually be Conservative-supporting. Ed Miliband’s decision to make the forests campaign a priority was right and shows how it is possible to define the centre ground on Labour’s terms.
Three, because, despite fighting a general election campaign against a party seeking an unprecedented fourth term after the worst economic crisis since the Second World War and with a prime minister on the ropes, David Cameron did not win the election. His government is fragile and lacks a mandate for its actions.
Cameron’s speech demonising multiculturalism and the Muslim communities, on the day of the EDL march in Luton, was a distraction from the cuts that are hurting the majority. Similarly, the renewed attack on pay levels in the public sector is a distraction from how the bankers are sitting pretty and how the rich are being protected at everyone else’s expense.
Here in London, Cameron’s midterm electoral test is already hoving into view, with mayoral and Assembly elections a little over a year away. New figures published today show that just as Cameron and Osborne are squeezing the majority, so London’s mayor has been focusing on protecting bankers and financiers. Over the course of one 12-month period, Boris Johnson held more meetings with bankers and the financial services industry than with the Metropolitan Police – and considerably more than he spent in publicly accountable meetings and press conferences.
His meetings with the bankers even outnumbered meetings with government ministers.
My message to tomorrow’s cross-party Progressive London gathering is this. Yes, the economic situation is bad, and is damaging the lives of millions. Yes, the government’s actions are harming public services and our quality of life. But our job is to stand up for the vast majority, ensure we are united, and work to prevent the Conservatives deflecting the agenda on their terms. And we should be clear that the government’s own weaknesses mean there is everything to be gained from campaigning and organising on that basis to push them back.
Ken Livingstone is a former mayor of London. He will be speaking at “There is an Alternative – Protecting London, Opposing Tory Cuts” tomorrow at Congress House. For more information and to register in advance, click here.