Reading the papers recently has felt like stepping into an alternate universe. In Media World, “Red Ed” is a loser, leading a party of no-hopers. The election of a Labour government would be a “catastrophe” for Britain, says the head of Boots, a billionaire who declines to name any specific policies he dislikes. The Mail gets a splash out of the former M&S chief Stuart Rose having a pop, without finding space on the front page to mention that he is a Tory peer. The Mail on Sunday unveils, with a theatrical flourish, the revelation that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls could have prevented the financial crisis but chose instead to divulge this red-hot information only to the mayor of Doncaster, before setting fire to a carpet.
There are honest criticisms to be made of Labour’s election strategy and Ed Miliband’s leadership style and independent-minded MPs with genuine grievances have struggled to get a hearing from the inner circle. This magazine has identified other big failings – not saying enough about social mobility, for example, or the complacency that has led to Labour’s decline in Scotland. But reading the right-wing pundits smugly reassuring each other that the party is a hopeless case, I find myself thinking: hang on, if Labour is as shit as you claim, why aren’t the Tories ten points ahead?
It is an awkward fact that despite having far less money than the Tories and with far fewer friends in the press, Labour is still neck and neck with its rivals in most opinion polls. The Conservatives show no sign of the surge they need to get a majority. They didn’t manage one last time, against a worn-out, three-term government and an unloved prime minister. They seem unlikely to manage it this time, against another unpopular leader and with the economy now recovering. In the words of David Cameron in September: “After that Labour leader’s speech, after that Labour conference, if we, the Conservative Party, cannot defeat that complete shower of an opposition, we don’t deserve to be in politics.” You said it, David. So why aren’t you winning?
Of course, if either party were streets ahead, this carnival of crap-throwing would not be happening. If the Tories were solidly in the lead, it wouldn’t be necessary to duff up the opposition in such a brutal manner – giving the underdog a shoeing is never a good look. There would also be restraint if it were Labour that was coasting to victory. In 1997, many on the right found it expedient to cheer Tony Blair on, lest they miss out on weekends at Chequers and cosy chats in Downing Street. As it is, the election is on a knife-edge and every vote counts. This press coverage is designed to fulfil its own prophecy: say Labour is a bunch of losers often enough and perhaps it will become true.
It is not surprising that right-wing commentators are taking such a stridently partisan tone – that is their job, after all. But amid all the glee at Labour’s difficulties, there is an absence of voices asking, “What the hell is the future of the Conservative Party?” Kicking Red Ed is reassuring, like group therapy. Meanwhile, the Tories have gained no significant blocks of support since 2010 and have lost thousands of voters to Ukip. There is a serious question mark over whether they could ever again cobble together enough votes in the right places to win a majority.
In this election, Labour is being over-scrutinised and the Conservatives under-scrutinised. This self-satisfaction is baffling: I’m in my thirties and there has not been a Tory majority government since I’ve been able to vote. There will be young people heading to the ballot box in May who were born after Tony Blair won his first term, with nearly four million more votes than John Major. For my generation and those who came after it, Labour – not the Conservatives – is the natural party of government.
In May, the Tories will have fewer options for coalition partners – the SNP won’t touch them with a bargepole – and, looking further ahead, they are in even deeper trouble. Experts disagree if the truism that voters get more right-wing as they get older still holds. And Britain’s changing demographics present the party with another challenge: being black or minority ethnic was the biggest predictor of not voting Conservative at the last election. Only 16 per cent of BME voters went to the Tories; over 60 per cent voted Labour.
This is a problem that the party simply does not want to face. Cameron defiantly cites the mere existence of his few black and Asian MPs when challenged, without confronting the reasons why these groups are under-represented. The party insists on “meritocracy”, while failing to recognise that being born a white, middle-class man is the best affirmative action scheme the world has ever produced. In one of his periodic flirtations with all-women shortlists, Cameron even acknowledged that the mechanism for selection was biased, saying that selectors often looked for the “perfect son-in-law” rather than the best candidate.
Why does representation matter? Because the great refrain of this election is a very simple one, born of the expenses scandal, rising inequality and anti-SW1 sentiment. It is this: politicians are not like us.
Countering this feeling will be tough, but at least Labour has begun to ask how it might be done. It has all-women shortlists, which brought 101 female MPs into the House in 1997 alone. It has informal quotas for other minority groups on candidate shortlists. It has policies that aim to tackle zero-hours contracts, the burden of social care and unaffordable rents. These are all popular causes, even if voters do not currently associate Labour with offering the solution.
What does the Conservative Party have? A lot more friends in the media, keen to reassure it that Red Ed and his bunch of losers couldn’t win a goldfish at a county fair. Such complacent cheerleading might be comforting but it is a substitute for addressing deep structural problems. In the next few months, while Labour is assaulted by critics on all sides, the Conservatives could be killed by kindness