As Labour takes a one-point lead in the polls, it is faced with a problem it doesn’t want to address: David Cameron. Despite his U-turns and policy disasters, Cameron has been having a good crisis and Labour has been unable to lay a glove on him. His NHS own goal looks like a golden opportunity. But is it?
There are only two issues that matter up to the election: leadership and the economy. Labour has to win credibility on both to win back people’s trust. Cameron outshines Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband as the popular choice for prime minister. He is seen as determined, competent and ruthless. In the hierarchies of a Southern-dominated English national identity, Cameron is an Englishman at home. He projects a familiarity and a patrician authority that give him an aura of historical continuity with the past. He is natural in his surroundings and looks as at ease in government as he does amongst his family and friends. Cameron connects with people.
Labour, still encumbered by its overly rationalist view of politics, cannot grasp the emotional and symbolic nature of Cameron’s appeal. It’s just PR. It’s all lies. But to take on Cameron and win Labour has to understand his popularity and face up to why it is failing to connect with the public.
As Labour seeks to restore its economic credibility it risks focusing on the deficit to the exclusion of a wider story about the kind of country it wants to build. Labour’s policy detail has to be woven into a story of national renewal. England will be the battle ground of the future. The Tory right know this – further devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and the English regions will recast the Ynion and threaten Labour’s position as a Unionist party. And yet Labour has not yet begun to tell its own nation-building story of England. It allows the image of a Conservative country to hold sway – with Cameron at its heart.
Cameron reinvented the Conservatives by stepping out of the Tory comfort zone and borrowing the language of ethical socialism. In a 2005 speech he set out the philosophy that put him on course to be Prime Minister. He had two core beliefs . The first is that, “the more power and responsibility people have over their own lives, the stronger they become, and the stronger society becomes”. The second is “the conviction that there is not a single challenge we face that isn’t best tackled by recognising the simple truth that we are all in this together.” He went on to declare that, “our challenge must be to harness people’s innate sense of duty, compassion and personal responsibility” – “there is more to life than money”.
Cameron captured the mood of a country distrustful of Labour’s impersonal, technocratic and statist politics. Labour refused to take his pro-social politics seriously. Seven years later and entangled in the compromises and mistakes of its time in government, Labour has neither seized hold of this politics nor exploited Cameron’s failure to achieve it.
The economic revolution of Thatcherism that Cameron championed has ended in collapse. There is no Big Society because the Coalition defends the same failed short-termist, shareholder value economic model it condemns Labour for supporting. But Labour can’t own up that it got the economy wrong and allowed too much licence to the City. Cameron is the bankers’ friend, but Labour can’t say that it made the same mistake. Cameron’s time in office has contradicted his declaration that ‘there is more to life than money’, but what is Labour’s ethics and philosophy of life after the bottom line? Cameron has no compelling story to tell about the future after the sacrifices of austerity. But neither has Labour.
Cameron’s political skill and luck has secured him the centre ground. He has won, for the moment at least, public acceptance of his deficit reduction strategy. There has been a turn toward a more conservative sentiment in the country. And yet the Conservatives are not confident about winning the 2015 election. Despite Cameron’s success, this is not a Conservative moment.
Neil O’Brien, Director of the Cameroon think-tank Policy Exchange is asked in an interview, “Where do the Conservatives still have to go?” His answer is the north. “The next big challenge is probably to go after a more working class kind of voter. The midlands and the north is where the next election will be decided.” The coalition, however, has abandoned the north and the “working class kind of voter” to insecurity, unemployment and sinking wages. The working poor are paying the highest price for the recession. Even when the green shoots of recovery appear, as they might do this autumn, new jobs will not mean rising living standards. People will have to work hard just to stay afloat while the rich still take the lion’s share of growth.
Cameron is not as good as he looks but Labour looks sunk in a state of suspended animation. Where’s the brio? If Cameron can weather events and keep the coalition intact he has an opportunity to make Labour politically irrelevant. The Tories succeeded in achieving this in the last major economic crisis in the 1930s. The stakes are high. Labour needs to speak for the country not just the squeezed middle and yet attempts to frame a story of national renewal and a Labour England remain ghost-like. If Labour can’t change the way it talks, it can’t change what it wants to do. And it won’t beat Cameron.
Jonathan Rutherford is editor of Soundings journal and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University