If you don't remember this man's gaffe, don't worry, it's Labour's fault not yours. Photo: Getty
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It's competence, stupid: Labour should have done more with the Tories' mistakes

Elections are as much about competence as conviction - Labour should have made more hay with the Coalition's many gaffes.

We live in an era of valence rather than position politics.  Like it or not, most voters prefer good government to grand ideological visions.  This does not mean to say that there is no place for narrative or for values.  But it does mean that both have to be tempered by pragmatism, by a sense that whoever is telling us a story and/or appealing to the better angels of our nature is also capable of getting the basics right.  Governments which don’t quite live up to their ideals are, more often than not, forgiven.  Governments that cock-up big time, less so.

Mistakes, especially if they betoken a loss of control and especially if you make a series of them in short succession, can be fatal – even if you do almost everything right after that.   Labour, for instance, lost the last election not in 2010 but in the autumn of 2007.  First there was ‘the election that never was’, which was followed in quick succession by an immigration scandal, embarrassing confusion over anti-terrorism policy, criticism from defence chiefs, the loss of two discs containing the personal and financial details of millions of families, then the resignation of Labour’s General Secretary over party finances.  Add to that the banking collapse and you have something approaching a perfect storm - one that did so much damage to the reputation of Gordon Brown’s government that no amount of saving the world on his part could save him from the chop when voters headed to the polls a couple of years later.

Labour, it is sometimes suggested, is particularly vulnerable to accusations that it’s incompetent because the charge feeds into a widespread underlying suspicion that, while its heart might be in the right place, the same can’t be said for its head.  As Maurice Saatchi famously observed in the run up to the 1992 election, ‘efficient but cruel’ – the Conservative Party’s basic brand – beats ‘caring and incompetent’ every time.

But ‘particularly vulnerable’ doesn’t mean ‘uniquely vulnerable’: the Tories, too, have a history of losing elections when voters begin to question their competence.  For instance, Ted Heath’s government didn’t lose the February 1974 election because it failed to live up to his proto-Thatcherite ‘Selsdon Man’ promises; it lost because it couldn’t even keep the lights on.  Likewise, in 1997, Ken Clarke’s stellar record as Chancellor could do little or nothing to rescue the Major government, whose reputation for knowing what it was doing had long since been irretrievably trashed not just by Black Wednesday, but by chaos over pit closures, the Maastricht Treaty, sleaze and the single currency.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that Conservative governments are, if anything, even more vulnerable than their Labour equivalents to the charge that they couldn’t run the proverbial whelk-stall.  After all, as Saatchi acknowledged, ‘cruelty’, rightly or wrongly, is already priced into the Tories’ reputation.  ‘Inefficiency’ is a much more serious matter precisely because it is so counter-intuitive, removing what for many floating voters is practically the only reason for voting Conservative.

True, the Coalition got its retaliation in first on the competence front, doing a brilliant job of retrospectively fitting up Miliband and his colleagues on the deficit and the debt while they were otherwise engaged hacking polite but nevertheless distracting lumps out of each other in the Labour leadership contest.

But Labour’s own supposed shortcomings shouldn’t have been enough, over time anyway, to have obscure the Coalition’s countless cock-ups – assorted prisoner escapes, self-inflicted wounds and parliamentary shenanigans on the Health and Social Care Bill, Lords and boundary reform, and Europe, the jerry cans in the garage suggestion to beat a petrol shortage that never came, the chaos at the UKBA and Passports Agency, the selling of Royal Mail for a song, the botched/snail’s pace introduction of Personal Independence Payments and universal credit, the bizarre goings on at the ‘Big Society Network’, not to mention the biggest cock-ups of all, namely the missing by a mile of much-trumpeted targets on net migration and on deficit and debt reduction.

Did you remember – and not just vaguely – each and every one of those items on that charge sheet? If not, you’re not alone.  One of the most common criticisms of Labour between this election and the last is that it’s struggled to come up with a clear picture of what a Miliband government would do – and do differently.  While this may be true, it risks blinding us to an equally important possibility, namely that Labour hasn’t actually been that good at opposition, at least in the sense weaving the Coalition’s myriad mishaps and missed targets into a wider narrative, not (to use Saatchi’s terms) of ‘cruelty’ brought on by austerity but of ‘inefficiency’ rendered inevitable by ideological obsession and a limited grasp of the lives of ordinary people.

Quite how this happened is a something of a mystery, not least because one of Miliband’s best lines came from his 2012 Conference speech, made in the wake, note, of what Labour brilliantly framed as the ‘ominshambles Budget’.  Yes, Labour’s ‘tax cuts for millionaires’ assault on the latter proved potent.  But so, too, did its ridicule of Osborne’s all-over-the-shop attack on pasties, caravans and grannies.  ‘Have you ever seen’, Miliband asked, ‘a more incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, u-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this Government?’

Had we had more of the same from Labour’s leader and his colleagues since then, political historians of the future might have pointed to 2012 as the year the Tories lost the 2015 election.  Unless we hear a lot more of it over the next five weeks, there might be no such defeat for them to explain.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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Will Brexit be a success? Not if Football Manager is any guide

I played both the 2017 and 2018 versions of the game for thirty years after Brexit. The result was a grim future.

If England wins the World Cup, but the Premier League loses one of its Champions League places, has Brexit succeeded or failed? That’s the question that could define whether Brexit endures or is merely a one decade proposition, at least if Football Manager is any guide.

Two years ago, the popular football simulation made headlines after announcing they would incorporate a range of possible Brexit scenarios into their game. On 29 March 2019, players would be told what the outcome of the Brexit talks were, with major implications for how British football clubs conducted their transfer dealings. The options: an EEA-style Brexit, in which the United Kingdom maintained its membership of the single market and with it the free movement of people and the current frictionless trade with the continent, a Canada-style Brexit in which the United Kingdom leaves the single market with the concomitant repercussions for trade with the continent, and a no-deal scenario.

I have now played both the 2017 and 2018 versions of the game for a good thirty or so years after Brexit. In both cases, I experienced what is still far and away the most likely flavour of Brexit – a Canada-style arrangement with a reduced level of market access. (The one disappointingly unrealistic note is that this all takes place with no transition in March 2019.) And in both cases, I was still at the start of my managerial career, carving out a name for myself in the lower tiers of English football, with Oxford City and FC United of Manchester respectively. (I begin my games of Football Manager unemployed and take whatever job I can get.)

What both saves have immediately in common is that for the great mass of football clubs, there appears to be no real difference between life the day before, or after, Brexit. 

Oxford City mark the first full season after Brexit by achieving almost perfect equilibrium in League One – 15 victories, 16 draws and 15 losses –  while FC United are promoted from League Two at the first sign of asking. It doesn’t appear as if British football is going to be all that different outside of the EU.
But the summer proves otherwise. Signing players, already nightmarishly hard at Oxford City – my wage budget is punishingly low -  becomes more difficult, as I no longer have immediate and foolproof access to the European market.  My usual approach in the lower leagues is to buy young technically adept players from Scotland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Ireland, and finance that by selling a player every summer.  Although FC United have a more competitive salary structure, they too struggle.

But as a net exporter of players, that’s all to the good. Other, bigger clubs respond to the unreliability of the European market by being more competitive for my players, and I successfully reinvest the proceeds, winning promotion to the Championship with both clubs in 2020-21

There, again, I find the football landscape much as I’d expect it: a series of financially over-extended clubs, all a bad run away from crisis, who are desperate for players with visas. This is double-edged: Oxford City are still a selling club, so the increasing cost of players is good for me. But unfortunately, not every one of my starlets can get the big move they want. On the eve of my third season in the Premier League – 2024-25 – a £97m deal for Ollie List, a buccaneering fullback I plucked from Fulham’s academy, falls through at the last minute, leaving me unable to buy several key targets and List thoroughly disgruntled.

The only way I stop List’s bad attitude bringing down the rest of my players is to bust open my wage structure to give him an eyewatering salary increase. He repays me by being the lynchpin of a defence that wins nine titles over the next decade, but he is symptomatic of a wider problem: I can’t sell on my players and I can’t easily buy replacements, so the only way to keep the show on the road is to pay higher salaries.

That dynamic seems to be playing itself out at other clubs up and down English football. My noisy neighbours, Oxford United, declare bankruptcy and are relegated three years in succession. As I celebrate Oxford City’s Premier League win in 2025-6, Derby County, Crystal Palace, Liverpool FC and Leeds United all find themselves in some kind of financial jeopardy, which is a good opportunity for me to buy some good players at a knockdown price, but again, on eyewatering wages. FC United’s first league title in 2024-5 similarly comes against a backdrop of clubs declaring bankruptcy.

To compensate for the lack of access to the European market, I turn my eyes further afield, signing players from Latin America, Africa and southeast Asia. I still face heavy visa restrictions, of course, and my Premier League rivals are in the same game. Ultimately, Brexit is good for increasing trade outside of Europe – but the increase in trade is not large enough to compensate for the loss of easy access to the European market.

While I am doing well myself in European competition, most English clubs are not. In a moment that triggers national soul-searching, the damage to our UEFA coefficient means that the Premier League loses one of its four Champions League places in 2032-33 in both saves with France the beneficiary in Football Manager 2017 and Italy the benefactors in Football Manager 2018. But in both cases, the English football team enjoys major success at the following international tournament (not, I should make clear, as a result of my involvement: I consider international football to be beneath me).

In both cases, the post-Brexit future is roughly in line with the bulk of economic forecasts: wages up, but prices up too. Trade with the world outside the EU up, but not by enough to compensate for the loss of trade with the continent. And crucially, underperformance relative to the rest of Europe.

So if Football Manager is any guide, expect Brexit to be a modest failure: and Axel Tuanzebe, the Manchester United centreback, to be a storming success.

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.