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.