Three people wear masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg at the Toy Fair 2015 in London on 20 January, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour and the Tories aren’t the same - so why do voters still think they are?

The ideological differences between the parties are greater than for decades. But their shared culture means few have noticed. 

There is one point on which Ukip, the SNP and the Green Party agree: the problem with Labour and the Conservatives is how alike they are. All three deploy the hackneyed charge that not a “cigarette paper” would pass between them.

At times in British politics this claim has appeared plausible. Around 2006 and 2007, the ideological terrain on which Labour and the Tories fought was microscopically small. For fear of being viewed as anti-business, the former would not propose tax rises on the wealthy. For fear of being viewed as anti-state, the latter would not propose cuts in public spending (agreeing in September 2007 to match Labour’s expenditure levels for three years). The portmanteau “Blameronism” was coined to describe the banal consensus between the two parties, just as “Butskellism” stood for that of the postwar era. It felt as if politics had been reduced to a contest between rival management teams, rather than a clash of ideologies. 

It was the crash that brought this era to a close. By ending the illusion of permanent growth, it resurrected the distributional questions rendered irrelevant by the boom. As a result of the shrinking economy, it was no longer possible for Labour and the Conservatives to pledge to avoid both tax rises and spending cuts: choices had to be made.

The two parties have made different ones ever since. In the months that followed the crash, the Tories opposed Labour’s fiscal stimulus and relinquished their commitment to match the government’s spending plans. Gordon Brown broke the decade-long taboo on increasing the top rate of income tax by raising it first to 45 per cent and then to 50 per cent. Politicians retrieved the works of Keynes and Hayek from the shelves where they had long gathered dust.

After 2010, the gap between the two parties grew wider still. Labour elected Ed Miliband as its leader. His defining aim was to overturn the 30-year consensus against market intervention. In office, David Cameron proved more radical than his emollient manner and One Nation rhetoric suggested, unleashing the private sector in areas where Margaret Thatcher had feared to tread.

Most in Westminster agree that the ideological distance between the two parties is now greater than at any time since 1992 and possibly earlier. Labour would restore the 50p rate, introduce a mansion tax, roll back privatisation, maintain Britain’s membership of the EU and impose spending cuts of about £7bn. The Tories would avoid tax increases on the wealthy, extend privatisation, stage a referendum on whether to leave the EU and impose cuts of about £33bn. When Britons go to the polls on 7 May, they will be offered two vastly different conceptions of the country’s future.

The irony is that ever fewer recognise this. The charge that the main parties are “all the same” is levelled with far greater frequency now than in the age of Blameronism. The Greens and Ukip, largely irrelevant until this parliament, flourish as more authentic representatives of left and right respectively. This paradox is partly explained by the degree of policy overlap that remains. None of the main parties has pledged to reject the free movement of people within the EU (as Ukip has), to abandon Trident (as the SNP has), or to end austerity (as the Greens have). Miliband has noted how “the bar” has been continually “raised” as policies once viewed as daringly radical are quickly becoming normalised. Cameron could say much the same in the case of immigration and Europe. His pledge to stage an EU referendum – a first for a Conservative leader – was simply banked by his party’s Brussels-bashers.

If the bar has been raised, some will argue that the answer is to jump higher. It would no longer be surprising if at least one of the candidates in the next Conservative leadership contest advocated withdrawal from the EU, or if a member of Miliband’s shadow cabinet, most likely Andy Burnham, ran to his left in a Labour equivalent.

But even if one assumes this represents an answer, it is a partial one at best. When voters cry, “You’re all the same!” they are rarely referring to policy. Their complaint instead reflects how indistinguishable politicians seem in appearance, manner and accent. It reflects a disdain for the wearying cycle of rebuttal and counter-rebuttal. Politicians may be on different teams but they are still playing the Westminster equivalent of the wall game. Intellectually, Miliband stands outside of the consensus but because of his orthodox career path, he continues to be seen as a creature of the establishment. Neil O’Brien, the former head of Policy Exchange who now serves as an adviser to George Osborne, was told in one focus group that the Labour leader went to Eton.

Voters’ alienation from Westminster derives less from policy than it does from culture. One of the first MPs to recognise this was Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour’s policy review. For this reason, he is perhaps the party’s most redoubtable champion of English devolution and movement politics. Voters will not be assuaged by “retail offers” handed down from on high. Labour must rebuild itself from the bottom up, a point that community-focused MPs such as Lisa Nandy, Stella Creasy and Alison McGovern have brilliantly grasped. The same is no less true in the case of the Conservatives, a party culturally estranged from the blue-collar voters on whom its past majorities depended.

With so few switching between the big two, Labour and the Tories are locked in comparable struggles to squeeze their smaller opponents. But just as the causes of their rise are not short-term, so the solutions will not be either. As one Scottish Labour MP told me in the case of the SNP: “Our biggest opponent is time.” The danger is that an inconclusive election result, produced by a voting system incapable of reflecting individual preferences, will only widen the gulf between Westminster and the rest.

  • Now listen to George Eaton discuss the difference between Labour and the Tories on the NS podcast:

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum