Britain’s political misty season

The halfway point of Britain’s five-year parliament finds all of the parties under pressure to adapt to a changing environment, says David Hayes

04 October 2012



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A better year: Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Photo: Independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel

A NEW school and university year, the return of wall-to-wall football, shortening days and self-improving evenings. But if it’s autumn in Britain it must also be Brighton, Bournemouth, Bristol or Birmingham: the seaside towns and Victorian cities where political parties and movements variously gather for their annual conference. The unfolding of the ritual extends even to the chronology. The venerable Trades Union Congress launches the series (with, this year, the election of its first female head, Frances O’Grady, competing for headlines with macho calls for a general strike), followed by the Greens (whose own moment in the sun was the choice of former journalist Natalie Bennett as leader, another step in the creeping Australianisation of British politics, of which more below) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (whose bellicose one-man-band, Nigel Farage, basks in promising poll figures).

The baton is then passed to the Liberal Democrats, buffeted but resilient junior partners in the coalition government that took office in May 2010; Labour, whose adjustment to opposition after thirteen years in government has still to metamorphose into worked-out policies for a future term; and the Conservatives, assailed by events and gnawed by suspicions, yet – appropriately for a party whose raison d’être is power – even more obsessed with how to win next time.

The parties of the United Kingdom’s other nations and regions – among them the Ulster Unionist Party (this year in Belfast), Plaid Cymru (Brecon), and the Scottish National Party (Perth) – also hold their main assemblies during this “conference season.”

In many cases, depending on their size and resources, the various parties convene more modest spring and region-based gatherings. But the autumn meeting is the big occasion, both for leaders (to bolster confidence, burnish their image, and prepare the ground for battles ahead) and for activists (to voice concerns, argue ideas and policy, and find reassurance among the like-minded). If parties continue to be fundamental to representative democracy at all of its levels, then these assemblages of free citizens – old pros and young Turks, grandees and rising stars, constituency faithful and true believers – are also part of its texture.

But as with many such rituals of public life, the very familiarity of party conferences can distract from changes in their character, which often reflect wider political and social shifts. In the case of the major parties especially, these changes include the pervasive media presence, which offers opportunity for promotion (good) and exposes the party to potentially damaging scrutiny (bad), but in any case tends to encourage uniformity and blandness in the main event (though not the often livelier conference “fringe”). The decline in party membership, and the withering of many parties at local level, make the delegates appear more exotic than representative of a broader community of the engaged. The permeation of security measures through much of public life has been driven partly by real threats (an Irish Republican Army bomb at the Conservatives’ 1984 conference killed five attendees and came within a whisker of assassinating Margaret Thatcher) but also arises from its own internal logic. Regardless of the cause, though, it tends to maroon the event inside an anonymous “exhibition centre” surrounded by barriers and checkpoints, a physical expression of alienation between politics and the everyday social world. Perhaps above all, the influence of business and institutional interests on politics turns the assembly into a “trade fair” where sponsors and lobbyists are as much in evidence as political animals.

The result of all this is a hybrid of old and new, reflecting an era in which the political parties themselves are still federal constellations of people and organisations based on shared interests, purposes, values and ideas, intent on campaigning in and winning elections in order to advance these; but also operate as corporate bodies, seeking to amplify their brand and extend their share of the political marketplace. In this context, the conference comes to fall less under the rubric of “public meeting” and more the field of “event management.”

The domination of politics by money is as grave a problem as democracy faces, and clearly goes far deeper than its visible manifestation at party gatherings. Alongside the other changes, it renders ever rarer the kind of epic moments and dramas that have inscribed themselves into Britain’s rich political folklore: Hugh Gaitskell in 1960 pledging to “fight and fight again” (to save Labour by keeping nuclear weapons); Quintin Hogg’s platform histrionics in 1963 as top Conservatives jostled for the throne; Michael Foot’s passionate oratory when he was Labour’s left-wing darling in the 1960s and 70s; Michael Heseltine’s flamboyance as the Tories’ equivalent in the 1970s–90s (a lock of “Tarzan’s” hair falling with each exuberant anti-Labour jibe); Norman Tebbit advising the unemployed in 1981 to get on their bikes and look for work (his sadistic enunciation and cadaverous visage accentuating the menace); Neil Kinnock’s excoriation of far-left entryists in 1985; and, perhaps above all, Denis Healey’s chaotic Heathrow-to-Blackpool dash in 1976 (his eyebrows as fervent as Heseltine’s curls) to warn the comrades against voting down Labour’s austerity policies and thus tie his hands at the International Monetary Fund summit in Manila.

Labour tearing itself apart, and in public – those were the days! And they’re unlikely ever to return, whatever else of a face-to-face contest of democratic ideas – part of the ingrained conviction that this conference, and politics generally, matters – can be clawed back.

THIS SEASON marks the halfway point of the House of Commons elected in May 2010, itself the culmination of five years of growing turmoil that saw Tony Blair replaced as prime minister by Gordon Brown in 2007, the great financial crash in 2008, and parliament’s humiliating expenses scandal in 2009. Reflecting a public mood increasingly hostile to politicians, the result could plausibly be read as the people’s revenge: an election that everyone lost.

The Conservatives lost because, although they were the largest party (at 36.1 per cent of the vote) and received most seats in parliament (307 out of 650), they fell short of a majority – and this after five years of Cameron’s “detoxification” of the harsh Tory brand and almost three years of substantial poll leads, and against a deeply unpopular Labour leader in Gordon Brown. The Liberal Democrats lost because their 23 per cent and fifty-seven seats was a retreat from their previous total, and this after the “Cleggmania” surge during the campaign created expectations of a dramatic breakthrough. Labour lost because its 29 per cent and 258 seats, its second-worst result since 1931, was a humiliating end to its thirteen years in office and a clear demand from the electorate for a fresh start.

The Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition formed after five hothouse post-election days was united in a near-purgative loathing for what it perceived as the controlling, manipulative instincts of its “New Labour” predecessor. The fruits included a 2011 Act that entrenches a fixed, five-year parliamentary term and specifies 7 May 2015 as the date of the next election. The Act removes the prime minister’s right to request a dissolution at a politically expedient time, though a 55 per cent majority vote could in principle force him to “go to the country.”

Relations between the governing parties have been strained, with many frustrations on both sides – not least among ambitious Tory backbenchers whose claims of preferment are thwarted by the LibDems’ presence in government, and LibDems who argue their party is denied recognition for its positive influence. Yet a number of factors have so far helped give the coalition ballast: among them the initial framework agreement (though now regarded by LibDems as dangerously ambiguous on key points), the predominantly cordial relations between leading players (Conservative prime minister David Cameron and his LibDem deputy Nick Clegg in particular), and the sheer depth and invariance of Britain’s economic woes (which work to close off political exit routes for both sides).

A less conspicuous factor is that all the parties, propelled by the election result into a landscape of coalition government unfamiliar since 1945, have been obliged to negotiate their way between England’s predominantly binary politics and the emergent, three-way “new normal.” (The United Kingdom’s other territories, even before the devolutionary reforms of the late 1990s, have long been used to at least a four-way system.) This is itself part of a larger transition towards a more plural, discordant and asymmetric political arena where the big beasts must campaign hard to secure once automatic loyalties while keeping a wary eye on potential insurgents.

But if the transition under way seems irreversible, it is too early to be certain about the fate of particular parties as it unfolds. The intense hostility towards the LibDems over their choice to join with the Conservatives – especially from those who had fled the Labour fold over the Iraq war and civil-rights issues, and students outraged by Clegg’s post-election u-turn over tuition-fees – has been echoed in plunging poll figures that raise shivers of electoral wipeout. Yet the party’s loss of its status as perennial outsider has its compensations. The ability to shape government policy (and, as it sees it, restrain the Tories’ right-wing instincts), the consequent gain in authority, experience and public recognition, even the routine exposure to withering media criticism – all represent a step-change for the LibDems and the broader political culture alike. If the party avoids collapse and the electoral arithmetic next time is sufficiently favourable, then a pivotal role as coalition partner may start to appear natural.

The prospects of a tie-up with Labour in 2015 are already being intensively discussed, fuelled by the careful positioning of the avuncular, ambitious LibDem business secretary Vince Cable as Clegg’s likeliest successor. (News of his exchange of text-messages with Labour leader Ed Miliband has intensified the speculation.) At the same time, the majority of LibDem members, broadly left-leaning in sentiment, appear in no hurry to make a switch – something confirmed by the consensual, “responsible” atmosphere of its conference on 22–26 September in Brighton. In this light, the party’s current irritations with its coalition partner – over the abandonment of House of Lords reform and neglect of the “green agenda” – may prove less disabling than those who long for an early centre-left realignment might hope.

THE Conservatives’ experience of coalition reflects the same dialectic of pain and reward, though its adjustment has been even more testing – so used is the party to hegemony (it ruled alone at Westminster for thirty-five of the years 1951–97), so rooted is its self-image as the “natural party of government” (although the phrase was adopted, in a clever act of pickpocketing from Conservative sentiment, by Labour’s Harold Wilson in 1974), and so scornful is it of the aggravating LibDems (with whom local competition, such as in south-west England, is often acute).

The 2010 result thwarted a longed-for return to supremacy, nurtured through thirteen distressing years of opposition and the successive attempts by William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard to revive the party’s fortunes. The choice of David Cameron – a smooth, telegenic, preternaturally confident former PR man – in December 2005, months after the Tories’ third election defeat in a row, began a long process of rebranding that stuttered until a moment came that would prove a turning point: the replacement of Tony Blair by Gordon Brown in June 2007. Brown’s brief honeymoon ended with fatal indecision over whether to call an early election to consolidate his authority. His infirmity, seized on by Cameron’s even more cocksure strategist and ally George Osborne, changed the terms of political trade in a way that Brown and his chancellor Alistair Darling’s bold response to the global financial crisis of 2007–09 could not reverse.

There was a paradox in this breakthrough. Cameron’s matey public persona betrayed diligent study of how Tony Blair had “connected” with the British people at his zenith, while behind the scenes the Conservative leader’s team paid equally lesson-seeking attention to the sources of New Labour’s success. (The clear parallel was with the way Blair had drawn on Margaret Thatcher’s.) The most visible evidence was an embrace of an ostensibly “softer” profile (over green issues and minority rights, for example), a penchant for showy PR stunts, and a determined avoidance of discussion of policy areas like Europe and immigration that might reinforce the Conservatives’ image as “the nasty party.” In the end, though, the Tories broke through in the polls not because they had become cuddly (though that may have been a necessary fiction) but from disgust at Labour’s perceived confusion of party with national interest; and they were to sustain their lead through a period when the economy – for so long Labour’s strongest card – was again becoming the overriding concern of voters.

The fluffy new Tories thus had to switch vessels even before they had sight of land, and the cherubic lightweights Cameron and shadow chancellor Osborne spent much of the three years before the election trying to match the solemn intellectuals Brown and Darling for gravitas. A no-contest in normal circumstances, but the anti-incumbency (and anti-politics) momentum was becoming relentless. When the scandal over parliamentarians’ expense claims erupted in 2009, tarnishing members of all parties, the governing party took the worst heat. A year later, the switchback ride that had begun in 2005 ended by pushing the Conservative duo over the line and into office.

Whatever the balance between sincerity and calculation, the Conservatives’ “modernisation” after 2005 now looks almost as remote as the invention of “New Labour” following former leader John Smith’s sudden death in 1994. Yet the questions that the process addressed, however shallowly – who the Conservatives are and what they stand for – have not been eclipsed by the economic concerns that now dominate the agenda, but have rather taken new form in the context of coalition politics. The party’s response – one that will dominate its conference in Birmingham on 7–10 October – echoes its coalition partner’s argument: namely, the LibDems act as an obstacle to the full-blooded Conservatism that only a majority government can reveal, but even in face of this the party is showing its colours by clearing up the financial mess inherited from Labour and with major reforms on several fronts (including health, education and welfare), thus laying the foundations for future success.

Yet the Conservatives, despite their dominance within the coalition and the LibDems’ bleak poll ratings, look the more troubled – or at least divided – of the governing parties. The deepest source of discontent is a flat economy. Despite incipient signs of meagre improvement, Britain is stuck in a cycle of massive debt (and painful “deleveraging” of debt accumulated in the boom years), low investment, shrinking competitiveness and poor productivity. The key reform areas, in the case of health and welfare at least, offer more disruption than progress in the medium term, especially in England, where the largest impact will be. The output of avoidable controversies, embarrassments and scandals amply feeds the 24/7 media cycle (and even if most burn themselves out within days and are quickly forgotten, they contribute to an electorally dangerous aura of arrogance and incompetence).

Many of the party’s increasingly restless backbenchers also worry over the leadership’s lack of authority, poor management and abrasive manner. It is emblematic here that the very figure appointed as party whip in the House of Commons in Cameron’s messy cabinet reshuffle of early September, Andrew Mitchell, immediately distinguished himself by verbally abusing a police officer at the Downing Street security gates. (His recorded, though disputed, use of the word “plebs” gave the story a lethal dimension of class snobbery and a media turbocharge.)

It is from the cohort of Conservative MPs first elected in 2010 that much of the party’s intellectual dynamism is coming. Their pro-business, anti-statist, socially liberal, globally oriented (but anti-European) mindset, digested in the book Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, presents a model of radical renewal far more bracing than the voluntaristic pieties of Cameron’s “big society.” (Like Tony Blair’s “third way,” the big society never quite made the transition from slogan to policy.) Other streams on the Conservative right, alert to the real danger of losing substantial votes to the anti-Europe, anti-immigration UKIP, prefer to bang a more traditional drum. Party centrists, meanwhile, worry that the party’s miniscule representation in much of northern England and in Scotland presages death to its claim to stand for “the union,” and seek a policy grail that can rebuild its appeal beyond its southern heartlands. Tim Montgomerie, astute editor of Conservative Home, points out that for “four elections in a row the Conservative Party has struggled to win a third of the national vote” and concedes that the party “has fundamental brand problems.”

In the shorter term, talk of a Conservative crisis would be premature, though forthcoming events may amplify it. A by-election in the former steeltown of Corby, where after only two years in parliament the high-profile local MP Louise Mensch, a former chick-lit novelist, is relocating to New York to join her rock-promoter husband is one such. (Who says the Tories haven’t changed since Margaret Thatcher’s day?) But far more ominous is George Osborne’s “autumn statement” on the economy, scheduled for 5 December, where any acknowledgement that the government will fail to meet even the revised public-debt targets of the March budget would reverberate in the financial markets. (It was the chancellor’s equivalent announcement in October last year that heralded the end of the government’s eighteen-month honeymoon.)

AMID all this, where is the Labour Party? It may seem odd to go in search of a party so recently in government, but it is a reasonable question to pose – if only because a striking feature of the new three-dimensional politics since 2010 is that the compelling dynamics of cooperation between the two governing parties have diminished the official opposition’s airtime.

Labour’s more optimistic answer, as embodied in the “Rebuilding Britain” slogan of its conference in Manchester on 30 September–4 October, is straightforward. After surviving a painful post-election inquest and the choice of a new leader without serious internal division, the party has enjoyed a widening lead in the polls since late 2011, is near-certain to win that vote in Corby (probably on 15 November), and can realistically look forward to a return to government in 2015 (or earlier, if the coalition implodes).

That version can sound plausible. After all, it’s easy to imagine a far more turbulent story in the wake of Labour’s loss of one million votes and ninety-four seats in 2010, when many of the party’s opponents confidently expected the kind of “civil war” that had followed its last exit from government in 1979. But there is still something about the prevailing self-belief that recalls the eerie moment when a character in a Western remarks, “It’s too quiet…”

Several currents flowed into Labour’s relatively smooth transition from defeat to opposition. Among them is the exhaustion or departure of leading players from the previous regime, which drew much of the poison that had entered its upper echelons, the inheritor generation’s uncertain relationship to the record of the New Labour years (what should we be proud of and what ashamed, what should be carried over and what junked?), and the awareness that the post-1979 precedent contributed to the party’s spending eighteen years in the wilderness.

Moreover, the issue that had consumed Labour’s final three years in government – Britain’s financial predicament – continued to dominate its inquest period. The new coalition relentlessly prosecuted the argument that Labour had led the country to near-bankruptcy, leaving the party – in the early stages of a leadership contest while under the capable temporary leadership of its former deputy, Harriet Harman – in no condition to do more than present a cursory, provisional defence. It could be assumed that a full accounting of its record in government and the lessons would occur after a new regime was in place.

A protracted contest – in which the frontrunners were former foreign secretary David Miliband and his younger brother, former energy secretary Ed Miliband – ended on 25 September 2010 with the latter’s victory by 1.3 per cent. In all four rounds of voting among three categories of Labour members (individuals, parliamentarians and affiliates), David had won a majority of the first two and Ed of the third.

Almost six months into the new government, Labour found itself with an unexpected leader elected in dramatic circumstances after a contest between siblings. A quiet life for the party may have seemed unlikely after such a prelude, but in the event the outcome had the effect of discharging tension and directing attention towards combat with a government already busy creating facts on the ground. In addition, Ed Miliband was less tainted by New Labour’s failures compared to the third candidate, Ed Balls, an ally of Gordon Brown and co-architect of the previous government’s economic strategy, as well as to his “Blairite” brother. He had been (from outside parliament) an opponent of the invasion of Iraq, and was regarded as the most left-wing of the contenders (partly owing to the trade-union support that secured his victory). All this, in the context of the need for an argument, a position, a strategy – anything – for the world of coalition government where the economy was still the only issue that mattered, invited Labour to do what circumstances seemed to demand: lay internal dispute aside and act as an opposition.

The upside of this course of events in 2010 was that it avoided a protracted, painful, even fratricidal inquest into the party’s own record in government; the downside – whose potential is yet to be tested by reality – is that it also ensured there was no catharsis that would seal Labour’s transition to a fresh era. This reckoning may yet lie ahead.

DURING the first, difficult year of an uneven struggle against two governing parties, Ed Miliband found it hard to make an impact in the gladiatorial Commons arena that is the most testing for any new leader, and even more to define a clear profile among the public. His internal leadership was also uneven, marked by ambiguity over the key shadow chancellor position (where the pugnacious Ed Balls eventually got the job) and over the party’s policy review. (The first unwieldy attempt at a draft was abandoned; the second was handed to the intellectually curious but undiscriminating Jon Cruddas, associated with the briefly influential “Blue Labour” tendency.) Ed Miliband’s second year has been more positive, his increasingly confident question-time exchanges with the disdainful Cameron matched by a breakthrough in Labour’s poll numbers to the current regular (if variable) lead.

How much of this advance is owed to the steady Miliband, and how much to a greater public receptivity to a critical message in face of the coalition’s record of non-achievement, is difficult to say. (A consistent theme of one of the best political columnists, the Independent’s Steve Richards, is that it is the commentariat’s perception of Miliband that has changed rather than the leader himself.) It is notable, however, that the Labour leader lags behind both his party and (on most counts) Cameron himself, a situation that may matter less in mid-term than in the approach to an election when the political argument tends to be framed in more personal terms. (Anthony Wells of the excellent UK Polling Report offers a pithy summary: Ed Miliband “ is less popular than his party and seems to decrease Labour’s support when he is mentioned. When particular characteristics are asked about, he is seen as honest and in touch with ordinary people, but weak and not up to the job.”)

But even were the personal issue to be resolved or neutralised, Ed Miliband’s Labour must address two major, linked challenges: to fill a gaping policy vacuum, and to develop a coherent message that gains traction beyond its core backers. The first, in the third year of the parliament, is becoming pressing, for otherwise the party is stuck in reactive mode, is vulnerable to being defined by its opponents, and cannot test itself internally and with the voters it needs to win. The second requires a combination of inward conviction and outward credence if it is to meet the exacting modern demand for “authenticity” and thus resonate with (but also help to release) society’s emerging awareness.

The closest Miliband comes to the latter may be the contrast he first made in late 2011 between “predatory” and “productive” (later finessed into “responsible”) capitalism. The latter’s foundation of ethical and regulatory principle would, he has argued, guarantee equity after an era of arbitrariness and breakdown. It is a potent theme in a country where casino finance has inflicted such damage, though to turn it into a detailed, realistic strategy of change will be a major undertaking. The fact that almost everyone – through to the Economist, the Financial Times (on its third “capitalism in crisis” debate since 2009) and the right-leaning employers’ group, the Institute of Directors – now proclaims support for the same cause may be to its advantage, but it will also make it harder to maintain the integrity of an idea that has become so promiscuous.

Elsewhere, Miliband’s search for greater definition has led him to champion the expression of English identity, and to invoke the “spirit” of British national unity of the late 1940s when postwar reconstruction got under way and the welfare state was built. (As David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain: 1945–51 shows, the latter was far more contested than roseate retrospect allows.) Both reflect the influence of Jon Cruddas, whose serious interest in ideas and Australian experience combined in his hosting of a London meeting in June 2012 between his leader and Tim Soutphommasane, whose book The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multicultural Society has also been touted as, inter alia, an answer to modern Labour’s problem with nationalism.

In the absence of a clear associated policy dimension, and given the way Britain works, excursions like these tend to dissolve into pietistic mood music. The same is true of Miliband’s invitation to the worthy but soporific Harvard moral philosopher Michael Sandel to address the first full day of Labour’s conference, a category mistake recalling the pointless fandom that elevated Anthony Giddens and Amitai Etzioni to guru status under New Labour.

Ed Miliband’s conference speech on 2 October – scriptless, perambulating, conversational and personal, as current fashion demands – brought an impressive change of register, without addressing this concern. It made an audacious attempt to project Labour as the party of “one nation”: audacious, because the phrase is identified with the nineteenth-century Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli, whose own speech in Manchester in 1872 laid the foundations of modern Conservatism until the ideological hurricane of a century later demolished them. (It may be salient too, given Ed’s background as the son of refugee academic Ralph Miliband and historian Marion Kozak – and the endless mutations of anti-semitism, brilliantly analysed by Anthony Julius in Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (2010) – that Disraeli is hitherto Britain’s only Jewish prime minister.)

The assured, relaxed sixty-five-minute oration fused personal declaration and patriotic appeal, again in the required modern idiom (“I want to tell you who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country”). It connected family and formative influences (including the murder of the South African activist Ruth First) to the nurturing of a sense of public duty and (non-religious) faith. And it sought to allow the explicit political message – on banking, unemployment, health, education, and immigration – to emerge through a “narrative” that could plausibly chime with the experience of millions of his compatriots. (Miliband used the mantra “I want to talk…” in relation to “a whole generation of young people who feel that Britain under this government is not offering them a future,” to those “who feel they’re at the mercy of forces beyond their control,” to millions who “don’t think they get a fair crack of the whip.”)

The successful conference of an opposition party ahead in the polls and united behind a leader growing in stature will invigorate Labour supporters. It also presents the patent-holders of “one nation,” the Conservatives, with a challenge they will doubtless relish with all the sheer ruthlessness that is in their DNA. By the time the House of Commons reconvenes on 15 October, and the next mass protest assembles in London on 20 October, the terms of the debate that will dominate the next year will begin to be set.

THE divergence between Britain’s huge economic and institutional problems, and its capacities to address them – instrumental as well as political – seems to be growing. There is little sign that the weightless David Cameron, the petulant Nick Clegg or even the cerebral Ed Miliband has the imagination now required to begin to reduce it. That may help explain why, of all the political figures in the current landscape, it is London’s flamboyant Conservative mayor Boris Johnson (behind the jokes a serious politician) who alone generates enthusiasm.

In the context of ongoing financial crisis, the logic of such sentiments could yet lead in unexpected directions, at some point even to the contemplation of that dreaded thing, a “national government.” So it seems a good time to retrieve the words of an Australian entryist of an earlier vintage, Richard Neville, which somehow never quite fade: “There is an inch of difference between the Conservative and Labour parties. But it is in that inch we all live.” In a misty season, they are a healthy reminder that politics still matters. •

David Hayes is Deputy Editor of openDemocracy. He writes each month for Inside Story.

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