Conversations in the Short Campaign

Ballot-Box-4x3There are, amongst all the other ersatz-yet-eternal regulations which commentators and politicians bring out almost newly-minted to prove their passing points, two rules of British politics: never write off the Conservative Party, and never underestimate the capacity of the Labour Party to alienate its allies. Were we to seek a narrative which might explain the static, enervating and gutless General Election campaign of 2015, these verities might be at its centre. In a period of political flux, in which the two major parties can no longer muster the support to command a majority of the Commons even under an electoral system designed precisely to fix it for them to do so, the Tories and Labour have each remained true to form: an astonishingly weak and witless Conservative campaign has nevertheless edged resiliently ahead in recent polls, despite all the dire warnings about governing parties always losing seats and shares of votes; and a schizophrenic Ed Miliband, on the one hand over-performing to the occasional extent of charming the public (no, really: watch his interview with Geoff Lloyd), has nevertheless gone out of his way to rob his party of any advantage the parliamentary arithmetic may provide it in the face of a larger Tory party, by telling the SNP and everyone else that he would prefer not to govern than work with fellow left-wing travellers.

What we have witnessed, then, is a defensive election campaign: the Tories scaring voters with absurd visions of chaos occasioned by the arrival of actual representatives of Scotland at Westminster, the Labour Party issuing mugs for sale with the words ‘Controls on Immigration’ printed on their sides in satirical socialist red. I have sympathy for both strategies from a purely pragmatic perspective: David Cameron faces a full-throated attack from his right, and knows from his party’s stubborn poll rating that being positive on the subject of the Coalition’s patchy record on the economy isn’t working; Labour also faces a revolt from that constituency which was once at its core – the white working class – and is loath to appear any longer to dismiss apparently widespread concerns about the impacts of globalisation (although, according to May2015, Labour voters at least rate immigration fairly low in their priorities).

Whatever, though, happened to leadership? Both leaders have spent five years denying a core vote strategy, and yet in this short campaign that is clearly what each have been pursuing: hoarding, not winning, votes. It can be little surprise in this context that the polls have shifted so minutely, if at all, or that in frustrated response the mainstream media has resorted to some of its most partisan reportage in a quarter of a century. This has been a grudge match of an election campaign, one in which the balance is so fine that the participants have chosen to avoid mistakes rather than aim for triumph. The Liberal Democrats have adopted an unimaginative and blandly centrist offering, openly placing themselves as useful only as a counter-point to eternally frustrated hard-right Tories or frankly chimeric hard-left socialists. Even UKIP’s Nigel Farage has been relatively tame, as if the speakers of right-wing truth to power have just as much to lose by opening their mouths as their sold-out brethren. The Greens, too – joined with UKIP in being punished by our electoral system – have doubly hobbled themselves, either deliberately or by design, by inexactly and timidly communicating if not their rather confused policy platform then the ideology that sits behind it, which one day might allow a more organised party to craft something a little more coherent.

Only the SNP, of those parties able to make much of an impact on Thursday night, seem to have produced something close to a positive campaign – and a message that seems both forthright and outward-looking. They look set to be rewarded by FPTP with a disproportionate number of seats. And there we reach the rub of this election’s undiscovered country: something remarkable is happening in Scotland, powered by David Cameron’s post-referendum cynicism, but its implications for the future of the United Kingdom are unclear, occluded by fear-mongering and parliamentary chicanery. In deference to the Middle England which the Conservatives’ campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, has sought to terrify with visions of a rampant Alex Salmond, Labour has – perhaps unavoidably, perhaps not – failed to make a crucial twin argument: first from a unionist perspective, as part of the better-together tone of the Yes campaign last year, that representation from all corners of the UK, and all stripes of opinion within it, is welcome at Westminster; and simultaneously from a leftist perspective the important point that nationalism undermines our society’s ability to withstand the pressures of corporate interest (and, should the more conservative position also need to be embraced, geopolitical flux). This rather old-fashioned and myopic Tory-Labour showdown has led us all down an unedifying cul-de-sac of sectional argy-bargy and dancing-on-the-heads-of-pins posing.


Perhaps all this is why the most striking aspect of this campaign has emerged in my conversations with other voters: that is, their almost universal lack of satisfaction with the choices on offer. As most of the parties have sought to play defence, so most of the voters have identified a vacuum at the heart of each of them. Take an estimable friend of ours who considers himself a natural Conservative but bemoans the decision to give the most successful political party in the Western world back to the Etonians: he considers David Cameron a Liberal or a Blairite (it’s not clear to either of us which is worse), and sees no useful place for his vote in the current system; in a seat in which the Tories could win, he’s attracted to UKIP’s defence policy, and its deficit-busting machismo, but understands how limited their voice and impact will be. He is in this way (and few others) no different to a voter who would love to full-throtedly endorse Labour but, say, finds its range of ceramic drinking vessels less than encouraging.

Where our frustrated Tory might be right, however, is that, for left-wingers who fell out with Labour during the Blair-Brown years, Ed Miliband is their reddest option since dear old Neil Kinnock. He may be keeping TTIP, but he would exclude the NHS from its provisions; he might have supported the Libyan action, but he more or less sabotaged intervention in Syria; and, in his refusal to accept in front of a hostile BBC audience that Labour had spent too much, he is bravely and gamely wearing a Keynesian tin-hat of proportions entirely alien to New Labour. Here’s another conversation we’ve had during this campaign, however: with a leftie who will be voting for the Greens, in a Tory constituency where they have no chance of winning. Any support for TTIP, in his book, is a deal-breaker; Trident must go; Labour is simply not ‘left-wing’ enough. Here is a mirror image of our Tory: a voter faced with signing away any influence on the actual government that is formed in the week following May 7th (assuming, as we all must, a hung parliament), making an imperfect (and arguably self-defeating) choice on the back of the sort of negatives which have defined this campaign.

“Make the Labour party the party you want it to be!” responded another friend of ours when we spoke about this issue. He’s not a member of the party but, like me, grew up in a rock-solid Labour seat, in which paradigms that may now be forever long-gone influenced at least my own political thinking. This sort of hopeful activism, the sort that has done the SNP such good in Scotland, is inspiring, even as it acknowledges the currently broken politics of the left – but is of little use in the voting booth tomorrow. “Vote tactically,” suggested another of our friends, herself marooned in a safe Tory seat and therefore urging us to avoid letting in another chap in a blue rosette via a vote of principle in our own, more marginal, constituency. She is joined by yet another friend, who would prefer to vote Green but, she has said, will vote otherwise in order to hold off the Tories. The siren voices of tactical voting are compelling – is your vote an anti-Tory (or anti-Labour) one more than it is actually committed to an alternative? – but in a feintly rotten borough such as ours, in which the sitting MP has more or less ordered his minor opponents to stand down in order to give him more negative ways to win, they are also fork-tongued and depressing: if we continue not fully to represent in our voting patterns the range of political opinion in today’s UK, will we not continue to suffer under an electoral system struggling to keep up with us?

All of these imperfect decisions look set to leave us with a messy photo-finish on Friday morning. I expect a surprise mini-swing to the Conservatives which may allow them to cobble together a wafer-thin majority with the Liberal Democrats, but inevitably the DUP and UKIP will have influence there. If Cameron fails to get to the magic number of 326 or thereabouts, however, Labour faces a rabid press for months or years – depending on how robust the Fixed-Term Parliament Act turns out to be in practice (and even Nick Clegg has, along with Labour, had a conversion on its rigid strictures in recent days). This may do long-term damage to the left generally and also (and counter-intuitively, given the alternative is government essentially by England) the Union. (To wit: “The House of Lancaster lost the crown in 1461 because Margaret of Anjou did a deal with the Scots.” Oh.)

In many ways, the story of this campaign is why Cameron has been so absent from it – it certainly seems he is not onboard with the bluer-than-blue approach of Crosby; but the story of its aftermath will be how well – or, more likely, how badly – Westminster deals with the SNP. It will be easy to be narrow and factional – more or less the definition of Cameron’s Conservatives (he has not looked good even next to Sir John Major’s contributions during this campaign), and also the direction in which Labour is being pushed by the right-wing press. But this approach will make our next Parliament even more, not less, fractious. First Past The Post, a system once lionised for providing strong government, is now contributing to the political uncertainty which in 2015 is enraging press barons, flummoxing politicians and, most importantly, thoroughly frustrating voters.


Why Liberal England Slept

Lib Dem ministers eye up their latest crush

Are Liberal Democrats naive or merely foolish? This seems to be the key question of current British politics: their apparently genuine shock and amazement at the extent of the Tory betrayal on the AV campaign suggests that at the very least the party’s leadership were too credulous when negotiating with the Conservatives, or that the were positively cavalier, ignoring all previous experience in the face of an Old Etonian smile. The Lib Dems are notoriously dirty campaigners themselves; that they have been knocked for six by a Tory-funded No campaign that spared no one’s blushes, and certainly not the terms of some paltry prenuptial, strains credibility.

Labour, of course, were sadly split on the AV issue – not least because the party’s Scottish MPs, who saw their bailiwicks turn to Alex Salmond on Thursday, rely in large part on FPTP to shore up their  majorities. But it seems a trifle rich to blame Ed Miliband, a leader who continues to speak the language of the ‘progressive majority’ despite all evidence of its existence tending to the contrary, for the failure of a campaign  that mattered apparently so much to Lib Dems (though not so much that all the party’s supporters could bring themselves to vote Yes). The blame must fall on whomever under-estimated small-c conservative opinion and large-c Conservative dishonesty – and over-estimated the chances that the public would turn to constitutional revolution at the merest flimsy word from an admittedly cuddly liberal.

Nick Clegg will continue that under-estimation of the electorate at his peril – yet his transparent positioning on the rolling back of Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms suggests that the Lib Dem leader, who is oh-so bravely choosing to do away with a Bill already abandoned by many Tories, including Cameron himself, will forge ahead in the only way he knows how: blindly, but with an increasingly forlorn hope that something will turn up. One might welcome the demise of the proposed NHS reforms, but Clegg will need not to halt Tory policies already in the process of being abandoned by Tories themselves, but succeed in implementing Liberal Democrat policies which people care about. It’s not enough for Ed Miliband to invite Lib Dems into his own party – he should be supporting any sign of a sort of fifth column within the Coalition. But with Labour under-performing and the Lib Dems at such a loss, that Old Etonian smile grows broader by the day.

Well OK Then to AV

Over-stated, under-sold

Has constitutional reform ever been so unsexy? It’s hard not to see in Nick Clegg’s acceptance of the Tory offer to hold a referendum on AV the germ of today’s poll numbers: the problem with AV is that it only excites people desperate to stick with First Past The Post. Even the greatest proponent of the Yes To AV campaign can find only lukewarm arguments in favour of the system we will all be voting under should it prevail tomorrow. Most of these arguments have to do with how AV is not FPTP – and a negative argument is rarely a convincing one. The rest – that MPs will work harder, or that it will make every vote count – are various shades of nonsensical.

And this, of course, was always the Tory plan. AV doesn’t change the game so much as add a modifier; and therefore conversion to one side or the other is difficult. This leaves the sort of rallying cries and dog whistles we’ve seen each campaign resort to with depressing ease – because the aim can only be to fire up those already against voting reform, or to enthuse those in favour of it. I believe FPTP is unfar; I don’t particularly believe AV is the silver bullet. Nor do I believe that a Yes to AV will mean further reform soon – though I agree with Ed Miliband that should the result be a No, then there will be little chance of revisiting the issue voting reform for some time to come.

Thus, of course, the dilemma: faced with a choice between AV and many other alternative voting systems that could replace FPTP, I would not choose the Alternative Vote. Our Tory overlords, however, have connived to ensure I have only a choice between a broken system and a slightly less broken one (or one that’s still broken, but in different ways). Vote Yes, and I risk contributing to the adoption of a system I don’t like that much, either; vote No, and not only do I side with John Reid and David Cameron – I in effect register my disinterest in further debate on voting reform. In the absence of the zeal of conversion, however, both campaigns tomorrow face a referendum set to default – few have been convinced by anything more than their pre-existing prejudices, and the rest have largely ignored the whole affair. Does anyone expect turn-out to be very high? Thought not. Over on Labour Uncut, Dan Hodges didn’t need a crystal ball to call the result as early as yesterday.

Doomed to a forlorn hope and incrementalism, however, I shall vote yes. But as I do so I’ll hear David Cameron’s cackle all the way from Downing Street.

Perception is Reality, Neophyte

Ed's media strategy has become more complex.

Over the weekend, it was increasingly easy to tell that the Labour Party have invested in some press people. In December, Ed Miliband appointed two stalwart political journalists, Bob Roberts and Tim Baldwin, to his communications team, and their effect is already being felt: it’s not, frankly, that Miliband is saying much of anything that is different or new; it’s simply that he’s having more success in getting the messages placed. From his Fabian Society speech on Saturday to the continued positive coverage of the Oldham by-election victory, Labour are punching about their weight in column inches. Not all those inches are favourable – Melanie Philips today does her usual turn on the subject of Miliband’s supposed turn towards small-c conservatism – but, at a time when the Coalition are being talked about largely in the negative (either from the right or the left), this breadth of coverage is no bad thing.

They are being helped along by a Coalition agenda tottering under its own weight; appearing on the Today programme this morning, David Cameron was unsure on Coulson and under-briefed on the looming fight over the NHS. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, continues to get a bad press. Even Fraser Nelson has to admit it’s going well for the reds. Those rumours, repeated on This Week by Jon Cruddas, of an early General Election in May start to look more tempting from a Conservative standpoint.

After all, the news from Oldham East and Saddleworth was not all good: yes, Lib Dem voters switched to Labour; but Conservative voters switched to the Lib Dems in considerable numbers, and the net impact was, despite an increased Labour majority, a slightly increased Lib Dem share of the vote. That this still wasn’t enough to tip a majority of 103 towards Clegg’s party is a bad sign for them; but any nascent political union between the two Coalition parties is more worrying still for Labour. If, given time, Tories choose to vote for Lib Dems in other marginals, Labour will lose seats; whether Lib Dems will do the same for Tories, of course, remains an open question. Unfortunately for the yellows, of course, most of their own seats are Tory marginals – and it’s difficult to say how comfortable Labour voters will now feel in voting tactically.

So the picture is confused – not least because the AV referendum may now be delayed. But what is increasingly clear is that Labour – ahead in the latest polls by some distance – now have at least some space to make their counter-weight felt. Tactical nous is not strategic victory, however – and the party’s platform remains somewhat dazed and confused. A job for heavy lifting in the background, to be sure – but it means the Coalition yet retains the real, rather than the perceived, initiative.

“We’re Here To Listen And To Work With You”

Purposeful David is Purposeful

The developing view of David Cameron is as a reasonable pragmatist. To confirm this, one need only look at two recent BBC radio productions: 5 Days In May was a rather ponderous dramatisation of the coalition negotiations following the General Election, in which Nick Clegg was cast as a dithering bride, and Gordon Brown as the bombastic, dogmatic suitor. David Cameron, played with a hint of Hugh Grant by Samuel West, was the consensual new man, all understanding circumlocutions and soothing respectfulness. More interesting has been Number 10, in which Damien Lewis has played a bold and unideological Tory PM, a very thinly veiled Cameron stand-in, whilst various other thesps provide a West Wing-lite coterie of well-meaning but frustrated aides.

Both dramas could have easily taken their conception of Cameron and his coalition straight from David Laws’s new book, the rather less snappily titled 22 Days In May. Serialised in the Mail, Laws’s self-serving account of a glorious coming-together saves special spite for Ed Miliband, and depicts the Labour negotiation team not just as under-prepared – as Nick Robinson’s documentary on the topic suggestions – but actively mendacious (5 Days in May had Ed Balls bellowing at the Lib Dems about how they were stupid-heads – I exaggerate, but only a bit). Even Cameron’s humiliating climb-down after appointing Tory party photographers to the civil service payroll was spun as a pragmatist’s response to public outcry; even as student protests plunge the capital into gridlock, Cameron – like Blair before him – can pose, perversely, as peacemaker.

This is some considerable feat, and is achieved largely by force of personality. If Blair was warm and winning, though faintly studied and oleaginous, Cameron is cool but in control, though faintly aristocratic. Cameron’s strength, then, is his appearance to be driven by ends rather than means; his weakness will likely prove to be the very distance that approach implies. Fow now, though, what’s most interesting about his premiership is that, unlike Blair, he does not command his party: the radio dramas and reality alike depict, yes, a pragmatist – but one struggling to hold together a party often anything but.

Both Lord Young and Lord-to-be Flight have, in successive weeks, given voice to the right-wing passions and prejudices which animate Cameron’s party, to gasps of outrage and rapid rebuttals from Number 10. But this, too, is inevitably part of the PM’s public persona – the sense that he is constantly keeping the lid on the true motivations which lie beneath his party’s policy. This is a tension of public identity which Blair better managed to neutralise: all those ‘New Labour, New Danger’ smears didn’t stick. If Cameron can’t do the same (and it is this blog’s opinion, of course, that he can’t and shan’t), he won’t, alas, last as long as his forebear. Shame.

Mr Ed

Hi, kids!

Ed Miliband has spent his leadership campaign posing as the trendy supply teacher – all informal authority and ideas attractive but somehow received, for which he has a great deal of enthusiasm but possibly not the skill to implement. Having given the supply teacher a permanent contract, Labour now get to see whether he’s as good at the daily grind as he is at letting the kids off the toughest homework; even more so, the awkward kid at the back of the room who was most keen on the teacher can now expect a bit of discipline from Mr M, just to show who’s now boss.

That awkward kid, of course, represents the unions, whose members gave Miliband the leadership on the waferiest of wafer-thin majorities – 50.65 to 49.75. The post-1980 federal electoral college has delivered tight results like this before (think Healey-Benn), but never has it seen a victorious candidate lose both the MPs and party members. This makes the job of my party’s new leader more difficult than it might have been – his enemies will have a ready-made line of attack, however disingenuous, and in the coming years a potentially arid dividing line between cutters and cutted must be avoided.

Not, you’ll understand, that a member who voted for Ed Balls would accuse Ed Miliband of being too left-wing – if anything, quite the opposite. Miliband’s conversion to cuddly leftism hasn’t quite convinced me, as long-term readers will know, and what Roy Hattersley is calling the new leader’s “gentle and joyous philosophy” will require a good deal more grit if it is to carry a general election. Matthew D’ancona trots out all the emerging right-wing talking points in his latest column, but is on to something when he casts the Leader of the Opposition as a preacher rather than a persuader.

Another always astute commentator, Steve Richards, this week fingered Vince Cable, who had a fairly disastrous joint appearance with John Redwood on Question Time this week (followed, on Friday, by a ranty Chris Huhne on Any Questions), as the Coalition’s cover man par excellence. Labour’s job must be to have no truck with empty leftie populism, but to espouse certain and credible alternatives to the true programme of the government. Ed Miliband spoke a lot about making Labour a movement again. This requires uniting and providing practical purpose to the party, and that would go a long way to capitalising on the clear lack of public enthusiasm for the Coalition’s direction of travel. Maybe the party, which predates my membership by some considerable distance, knows better than I do after all …

The Briar Patch

In happier days.

Labour Party members this week await with baited breath their leadership ballots. In less than a month, we’ll know the identity of the new Labour leader, and it is therefore no great surprise that the mainstream media has suddenly started taking notice. The papers were full this week of claim and counter-claim from the various camps (although Burnham’s and Abbott’s remain curiously silent). Most notably, the right-wing press has been having its say, and making not a little mischief: in the Sunday Telegraph today, Matthew d’Ancona encourages Labour to vote for their own Dave; anonymous Tory sources have been briefing the Guardian’s Nicholas Watt that Cameron is practically quaking in his boots at the prospect of facing the elder Miliband; and at the Spectator’s Coffee House, Fraser Nelson adds to the emerging Tory consensus that the only man for Labour is the former foreign secretary.

Nelson is honest enough in his piece to admit that, however under-reported the contest has been, it remains acutely relevant: Labour retain too many seats to be discounted as a political force. Indeed, going on precedent, it would be more unusual for them to lose the next election that it would be strange for them to win it. This alone makes one pause when considering the right-wing noises: do they really believe David Miliband is the best leader the party has to offer, or do they fear another in their secret moments, talking up the nobbled favourite in an attempt to ensure a cakewalk?

This was certainly Sunny Hundal’s view, and it’s gratifying to think that Labour remain such a fighting force that the Coalition puts such time and energy into fixing its leadership race. But Hundal’s belief that Cameron truly fears the younger Miliband seems to me wishful thinking. Ed’s article in the Observer today is thin gruel indeed: he’ll make capitalism work for the people; he’s for wealth creation as well as redistribution; the environment, about which he was once so passionate, merits an afterthought of a sentence; he attacks (rightly) the Coalition for having no plan for growth, but his own seems to consist largely of platitudes about diversifying the industrial base. None of these ‘policies’ – more properly, platitudes – is aimed at anything more than winning the Labour leadership; it isn’t a credible programme for opposition, let alone government – and feels in some way confected, to boot.

Compare this with Ed Balls’s speech to Bloomberg, also delivered in this week of increasingly targeted attacks amongst the candidates: Balls’s campaign slogan has become ‘There is an alternative’, ostensibly referring to the dreary Coalition consensus, but in truth surely aimed at voters thinking Labour is now a subsidiary of Miliband Bros. “Adopting the consensus view,” he argues, “may be the easy and safe thing to do, but it does not make you right and, in the long-term, it does not make you credible.” This is an obvious attack on David Miliband’s campaign, but it is supported by a depth of reference and policy which beats Ed Miliband into a cocked hat. Balls, however, remains hostage to his unbreakable alliance with Gordon Brown, and has little chance of winning.

David Miliband, meanwhile, was never a true fellow traveller of Tony Blair’s – described by the ex-PM as his Wayne Rooney in the dying days of the Blair premiership, Miliband was nevertheless replaced as soon as practicable as head of Numb er 10’s Policy Unit by the true Blairite, Andrew Adonis. He escapes, therefore, easy attachment to destructive factionalism. It’s in one way to his credit, however, that he hasn’t attempted to wash his hands of the government of which he was such a prominent part. With or without the support of Jon Cruddas, however, and laudable grassroots focus aside, can Labour afford to elect be led by another politician in favour of the Iraq War, or one who communicates in the same technocratic language the electorate have so clearly come to despise?

The decidedly cuddlier Ed Miliband currently seems a compromise between the likeable-but-sullied David and the combative-but-comprehensive Balls. But he is the sort of compromise which feels watered down rather than balanced out. We have a government whose supporters condemn the Institute of Fiscal Studies as a pinko outfit as soon as it disagrees with them (even Nick Clegg had a go); it’s even unkind to animals. Its approval rating dipped into the negative this week. Labour needs a leader who can capitalise on that: Sunder Katwala has some timely thoughts on not buying the usual right-wing warnings about alienating the ‘middle’, and the question is whether the siren voices on the right are playing canny or straight when they say David Miliband is the best man for the job. Alistair Campbell, for it is he, has his own thoughts on this topic. But whatever the case, the left shouldn’t elect his as yet under-developed brother just to be ornery.