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21 January 2016

David Cameron’s English lessons, waiting for Corbyn, and the Tories’ self-squeezing mop

Sluggish Labour and the pollsters' postmortem.

By Stephen Bush

I am suffering my way through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. The books have won rave reviews but I confess that their appeal has eluded me so far. (I reached a point this week where I had to stop and reread Julian Barnes’s Sense of an Ending, just so I could remember what enjoying a novel feels like.) Yet I continue with Ferrante, not so much in the expectation that the next 900-odd pages will improve but to make the previous 600 worthwhile.

I suspect that a similar impulse lies behind the continuing success of the Conser­vative Party’s austerity narrative. In 2010 and 2015, the Tories ran on a promise that there was light at the end of the tunnel. It now appears that the only thing at the end of the tunnel is yet more tunnel, or, to adopt the phrase they used to attack Labour at the last election: more taxes, more borrowing and more debt. And yet, unsurprisingly, voters preferred David Cameron’s wheeze that the best was yet to come over Ed Miliband’s idea that all the pain had been for nothing.

John le Carré, who, like all the best novelists, explains rather than merely describes life, sums up the process well towards the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. “Ever bought a fake picture?” the spymaster George Smiley asks. “The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt it. Silly, but there we are.”


Sluggish Labour

Perhaps if the press – particularly the left-wing press, such as the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman – were more supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership the Tories’ fake picture might be more quickly exposed? It’s a criticism I often hear. It is also true that much of the press regards Labour as a fly to be swatted. But Team Corbyn doesn’t make it easy for those of us inclined to give the party a fair hearing.

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This week, David Cameron announced that some immigrants (particularly Muslim women) need to learn English, under a programme to combat the rising threat of jihadism and extremism. Unfortunately, someone or other presided over a swingeing cut to funds for Esol (English for speakers of other languages) – oh, it was one David Cameron. The announcement was therefore a lose-lose for him: either he was wrong to cut the money then, or he is wrong to say that it’s needed now.

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This was a golden opportunity for Lab­our to point out how austerity is often self-defeating. But finding a frontbencher to write about it on the New Statesman’s politics blog, which I edit, was like getting blood from a stone. It took Labour HQ until just before midday to issue a press release – some three and a half hours after Cameron appeared on the Today programme and almost two hours after the Liberal Democrats had attacked the speech.

This experience is not unique. The new model Labour Party is generally sluggish in attacking the Tories and the problem isn’t confined to the NS. A friend at another left-leaning publication is still waiting for a promised response from John McDonnell to the Autumn Statement.


Signature works

Should Donald Trump be banned from Britain? There was no shortage of MPs lining up to speak at a Westminster debate on the subject, after an online petition gathered well in excess of the necessary 100,000 signatures. There was no prospect of the ban passing, so some commentators have gnashed their teeth at what they see as a waste of time. But while this particular petition may have led to little of consequence, the same process was also vital in stopping the sell-off of Britain’s forests. People who rail against online petitions and “mob rule” should be careful what they wish for.


Mop tips

In the new film Joy, Bradley Cooper’s TV executive gives Jennifer Lawrence’s character, who has invented a self-squeezing mop, a valuable piece of advice: if you say something ten times, people start to listen.

The Conservative victory last May came in part because the party knows this secret: keep saying the same thing until your throat starts to bleed, then say it again. Ed Miliband, in contrast, jumped from theme to theme like a frog on a hot rock. Margaret Beckett’s autopsy of the party’s election performance, published in the past week, finds that the lack of a consistent theme was a crucial reason for the drubbing in 2015, along with the failure to dispel the ideas that Labour was responsible for the financial crisis and that it wanted to funnel money to the lazy and the foreign.

The party’s problems are bigger than just finding a better story to tell about its purpose and saying it ten times, but that would be a good first step.


Polling problems

It wasn’t just Labour that lost the general election – the pollsters did, too, by universally predicting a hung parliament. Their post-mortem is also out this week and the verdict isn’t that Cameron’s warning about an SNP-Labour coalition caused a late swing to the Tories, or that turnout lost it for Ed Miliband, but that the pollsters were talking to the wrong people.

It seems Labour voters are more willing to talk to polling companies and academics than their Conservative counterparts.

That has bigger consequences than you might think. There should have been much more focus on the Tory manifesto and far less on which parts would be negotiated away in a potential coalition with the Liberal Democrats. I, for one, regret spending so much time on the jockeying between parties and not enough scrutinising individual policy platforms.

Stephen Bush is the editor of The Staggers

Peter Wilby is away

This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war