What does the Conservative Party have to do to win the next election?

By Matt Beebee

The 2010 General Election should have been a clear Conservative victory. It wasn’t. 64% of those that voted backed other parties. This was a perplexing outcome given the Tories were facing a tired and battered Labour Party, trudging through a global financial crisis with rising public debt. Under the leadership of the young David Cameron, who had shifted the party towards the centre ground, victory looked all but certain. Yet failure to win outright forced the Conservatives’ hand into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; a relationship that has been tetchy to say the least.

The relatively poor show was always going to give the Conservatives, who were polling 20 points ahead of Labour before the 2010 election, an uphill struggle in the 2015 general election given the tough decisions they would have to make in government – on the economy in particular. Former Cabinet minister Michael Portillo has blunted declared “the Conservatives appear to be doomed” at the next general election. He could be right; no party has ever increased its share of votes at a subsequent general election since 1955.

With such pessimistic inevitability, should the Tories concede themselves to losing the election? No. Much could change during the remaining two years of government, but the Tories have three big obstacles they must – and more importantly can – overcome to win the next election.

First, there is the matter of the Labour Party. Despite Labour consistently polling around 10 points better than the Tories, they come out worse in two important polls: preferred leader and economic competence. Although it iz grossly unfair to dismiss Ed Miliband as a leader based on his physical appearance, the electorate do seem to lean favourably towards David Cameron’s style and aptitude as an orator. Labour’s continual dithering over turning ideas into policy, if left too late, could play into the Tories hands. To their credit, they have a plan and are sticking to it. Likewise, Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, is considered a prime target to personify Labour’s ineptitude with his rowdy, firebrand style of politics. The Conservatives will seek to push this idea; Labour has no strategy for taking tough decisions in government and opposes with little in the way of alternative policy.

Then there is Europe; the Conservative Party’s ‘elephant in the room’. Cameron has already committed himself to an in/out referendum in 2017 if he is Prime Minister. The paradox is that Cameron does not wish to leave the EU; he wishes to reform it politically while retaining the economically vital single market. He has felt the urge to accommodate the Eurosceptic crowd given the surge of UKIP and the perceived natural Euroscepticism because of Britain’s island culture. This pandering should be avoided. A YouGov poll from January stated 34% would vote to leave the EU while 40% would vote to remain. Cameron should instead be pushing for a reformed EU treaty – something he is confident of doing – that reclaims parliamentary sovereignty and supports economic liberalism, demonstrating that he does worry about European encroachment while emphasising that leaving the EU single market is to the detriment of the UK’s private sector. This should win back the Eurosceptic defectors and render a dangerous referendum unnecessary. Despite its many troubles, voters must remember the EU is still the world’s largest market and the UK’s major trading partner.

However, it is the economy that wins elections. Although ComRes, a polling consultancy, found the electorate are more likely to trust ‘Team Cameron & Osborne’ over ‘Team Miliband & Balls’ on the economy, this should not cause complacency. The deficit may have fallen year-on-year since 2010, but only minimally; public spending is continually higher than it should be, largely due to automatic stabiliser payments and continual ringfencing of certain government departments – international aid is a particular bitter pill for a domestic electorate facing squeezes. Removing ringfencing will allow for efficiency within departments, further reduce departmental spending on waste, while also freeing up money for capital spending projects, generating multiplier effects on job creation and consumer demand.

Unemployment continues to creep above 2.5million, too. More should be done to cut unnecessary red tape that hampers job creation. Pressing ahead with radical reform to the welfare system, although painful, seems to strike a chord with the electorate. If people can be pushed back into work through welfare and regulatory reform, job creation and growth will soon pick up. If growth, rising employment and greater deficit reduction can be achieved the Tories can at last claim to have moved the economy out of the doldrums, significantly boosting their electoral hopes.

Securing an outright majority in 2015 will be a tough ask for the Conservatives given the precarious position they defend and the fragility of the economy is by no means bound to change, despite recent upturns. With a clear focus on the right policy choices over the next two year,, so to outmanoeuvre their main rivals, the Conservatives stand a better chance of re-entering government in 2015.

Ed Miliband’s Clause IV moment

By Phil Lewis

Nineteen years ago Tony Blair shook the Labour Party by scrapping Clause IV of its constitution, signalling the start of a new era of progressive politics.  The old left that had seen the Party lose four elections in a row was fading fast.  And in terms of electoral results, it was an incredibly effective strategy.  The demands for nationalisation that Clause IV carried belonged to a by-gone era.  If Tony Blair hadn’t done it, someone else would have.

And now, after two years of skirting around the subject, Ed Miliband finally has to confront his Clause IV – the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions.  After they overstepped the mark in Falkirk last week, the Labour leader was forced into addressing the most significant remaining remnants of the old, now wholly unelectable face of Labour. 

By announcing that union members will have to actively choose to pay their dues to the Labour Party rather than (as it is currently) having to actively opt out, Miliband has continued the process of modernisation that Blair kick starting nearly twenty years ago.      

But it’s a difficult balancing act for Miliband.  After all, he built his reputation as a Brownite, and only pipped his brother for the leadership via the union vote.  His father was a famous Marxist academic, and he even interned for Tony Benn.  Blair on the other hand had little trace of real left-wing politics in his make-up (ex public school boy with a Tory father).  It was far easier for Blair to set himself apart from the old left of the unions.  He was a moderniser, a Third Way progressive, and a social democrat who believed in the market economy, take it or leave it.  Luckily for Blair, the public took it.  For Miliband it is far more difficult.

Yet, as his bold statements this week show, Miliband hasn’t shied away from doing what is necessary.  He branded the events in Falkirk as “the death-throes of the old politics“, saying that it was “rightly hated”.  He toed a fine line between the old and the new, stressing the importance of keeping working people at the heart of the Party as well as the need to reform union law.  In moving the focus from the collective to the individual he has made a self-consciously progressive move.                          

It seems Miliband wants to create a sort of sieve like relationship with the unions.  The more politically proactive union members will join up and become fully fledged members of the Party, while those who were paying their dues out of duty to the union will be filtered out.  Labour will increase membership and potentially gain many a useful activist, but lose a significant portion of its income. 

Union officials are predictably scathing about the plans, with Unite general secretary Len McCluskey dismissing the financial cost as too great a burden for the plans to be workable. 

But this goes beyond financial sacrifice.  This is an important step in a series of reforms that has made the Labour Party a credible electoral force.  Before Kinnock’s initial efforts and Blair’s subsequent and more substantial ones, the Labour Party simply was not electable.  They had become the party of perennial opposition, and a party who is forever in opposition slowly loses its credibility as a real alternative.  And so with the left hopelessly split, Thatcher never really faced a credible electoral challenge. (The fact that her own party had to throw her out in the end shows just how useless the left were).     

I’m not suggesting that a failure to follow through with these proposals would see the Labour Party return to 1980s levels of ineffectiveness.  I am suggesting however that modernisation of Labour’s relationship with the unions has been on the cards for some time, and, like Blair’s scrapping of Clause IV, was bound to happen eventually.  Falkirk was merely the tipping point.  The straw that broke the camel’s back.  

And if Miliband successfully follows through he will have proved once and for all that he is not merely a union puppet, and that he may just have the necessary backbone to be PM.    

I don’t know whether is it was just some Fleet Street thing: Nick Clegg and the danger of morality doorstepping

By John Newton

Nick Clegg has been accused of making a gaffe after appearing to down play the seriousness of domestic violence on his LBC Call Clegg programme. Newspapers reported that the Deputy Prime Minister had described an incident involving Charles Saatchi putting his hands around his wife, Nigella Lawson’s throat as “fleeting”. However, what Clegg said and the response it elicited point to interesting currents at play in the relationship between politicians and the media.

Modern politics is sometimes a depressingly stage managed affair, with entire departments of well qualified and savvy media operators working manically to ensure that in every contact with the press or the public our politicians come across as normal, decent human beings.

This is actually surprisingly difficult, so naturally when the assiduously conceived mask slips and the plausible ‘hard working public servant’ goes off script, the press seize it gratefully and run with it, often with opposing parties providing supporting cover down the wings.

There have been Ken Clarke’s infamous comments questioning the legitimacy of date-rape on BBC Radio 5live, which prompted Labour leader Ed Miliband to call for his resignation, or Gordon Brown’s much vaunted ‘bigot’ remarks in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Both of these things were legitimate sources of news as they provided pertinent and substantial insights into the views of the politicians involved. Ken Clarke was at the time he made his comments on the Victoria Derbyshire programme the Justice Secretary. This clearly provided a disturbing perspective on the way he would act as a Minister.

Similarly, during the 2010 general election campaign, a key issue for the Gordon Brown’s government was a collapse in support amongst traditional working class Labour voters over issues like immigration policy. By accusing Gillian Duffy of being a “bigot” on a microphone which had been mistakenly left on, Brown seemed to show a lack of understanding of the views and fears of one of his party’s core demographics.

In the case of Nick Clegg’s comments however, it seems that while the response was one of unequivocal condemnation, the narrative is much more nuanced.

Clegg’s words were not elegant or inspiring. It can safely be assumed that a more wizened political operator would have quietly stressed they couldn’t comment on an individual case and loudly condemned domestic violence.

The Liberal Democrat leader in fact seemed to do the opposite.  Asked if he would have personally intervened in the particular incident depicted between Saatchi and Lawson, he initially said:

“What a difficult question…I find it so difficult to imagine. So you see a couple…I’m like you, I don’t know what happened. When you see a couple having an argument, most people you know, just assume the couple will just resolve it themselves. If something descends into outright violence then that’s something different. I just don’t know.

“There was this one photograph. I don’t know whether that was just a fleeting thing or…I’m really sorry … I’m at a loss to be able to put myself in that position without knowing.”

Only then adding when asked to comment more generally: “I hope everyone’s instincts would be…to try and protect the weaker person. To try and protect the person who might be hurt.”

This is clearly not a well constructed or rousing condemnation of what is generally perceived as a wide-spread but clandestine crime. Rather reasonably, that is because that is not what Mr Clegg was asked to comment on. The caller asked him specifically about what was shown in the pictures of Lawson and Saatchi and whether that would have prompted him to intervene. Having only seen one of the pictures, Clegg said he didn’t know how he would have responded. As it appeared that Clegg was unaware that Saatchi had accepted a police caution for the incident, it seems he strove not to tread too heavily on possibly libelous ground by making any direct statement a about a case he seemed to know little about.

Within an hour of the programme going out, the Telegraph’s James Kirkup claimed in a blog post that the Deputy Prime Minister should “be ashamed of his comments this morning”. Kirkup notably picked up on the word “fleeting” which seemed to be the focal point for the subsequent criticism of Clegg’s comments. Vey early on this conflated the issue of whether Clegg was talking about the incident itself or positing the difficulties in deciding to intervene in an argument you know little about in a restaurant.

Listening to the broadcast, it is relatively clear the latter is the case. Once this conflation had been introduced however, torrents of condemnation followed.

Conservative MP Sarah Woollastone tweeted “So just don’t ‘call Clegg’ if your partner likes to grab you by the throat to emphasise a point”.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper released a statement attacking Mr Clegg for revealing “how little he understands about violence against women” as “too often violence against women is dismissed as fleeting or unimportant”.

Inevitably Mr Clegg’s office rushed out a statement clarifying that the politician unsurprisingly “completely condemned all forms of domestic violence”.

However, it seemed that Clegg’s reticence on the issue had provided a political open goal.

In an interview in Saturday’s Guardian, Labour leader Ed Miliband went further, bringing the focus back to the pictures themselves and the question of intervention. He said:

“Honestly, if you are passing by something like that happening – our duty is to intervene. If I had been in that situation, passing by in those circumstances, the right thing to do is to go up to somebody involved in that and say ‘What’s going on?’”

This was the immediate precursor to a difficult acknowledgement about the limits of Labour’s spending commitments, were the party to win the next election. The article’s topline remained the comments about the incident in the restaurant.

Using such a serious a complicated issue, like domestic violence, which is so often hidden from view, to make political capital is truly reprehensible. Obviously domestic abuse will not be solved by MPs rushing about restaurants demanding to know “What’s going on?”. The Labour party should know better than to treat the issue so cheaply.

The media tactics at play seem akin to ‘morality doorstepping’. Doorstepping refers to the practice of, typically, waiting outside someone’s home to fire questions at them on a particular topic as they make their way from the front step to the waiting car. It’s a favourite ploy for use on disgraced ministers and celebrities, where getting an actual comment is only slightly preferable to getting footage of a dogged figure refusing to answer a question.

When applied to serious and complex issues of morality and in this case as it has transpired criminality, a lack of comment seems tantamount to an endorsement, with which the press can then run with as a gaffe.

In this case in particular the conflation and lack of substance to the stories trivialise the issue as reporters pore over transcripts looking for a ‘smoking gun’ which could be used against Clegg.

The danger inherent in this method of journalism is that politicians will be presented with a stream of ‘what would you do if’, scenarios to respond to. In the main, politicians would welcome this as, with adequate preparation it gives them the chance to talk about themselves and promote a positive image. What is less desirable however is the onus placed on the personality of the politician rather than the gravity of the issue, giving the process a competitive element as political figures vie to give the ‘right’ answer.

Both before and after hearing Clegg’s comments and despite disagreeing with him on almost every conceivable level on politics and policy, I am pretty sure he doesn’t aim to condone or downplay instances of domestic violence.

By using these comments as a political weapon, conversely, politicians and the press have trivialised and distracted from the issues at hand.

The Citizens’ Advice Bureau and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, have both pointed to Government cuts to welfare meaning that victims of domestic abuse often have fewer options for escaping violent relationships, as women disproportionately lose out from changes to benefits.

By using the pictures of the incident the press has shown how it can highlight issues like domestic abuse, raising awareness and starting much-needed debates. However by turning the issue into a party political point-scoring exercise or a moratorium on Nick Clegg’s media relations skills this vital opportunity is squandered. This does not just constitute lazy journalism, it is actively damaging.

 

Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’: What should it mean?

By James Aisthorpe

Ed Miliband’s speech at the Labour Party conference in Manchester last week is perhaps best described as triumphant. It was met by rapturous applause by the Labour faithful and Ed was affable, clear and confident while speaking ‘without notes’. Labour MP Tom Watson called it ‘the best leader’s speech’ he had ever heard.

Certainly it was not a speech that is going to be skipped over by the history books, particularly if Labour should win the next general election. Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ speech could well emerge as a pivotal point in the development of UK politics. It was that good.

It was of course, as many commentators have already noted, quite audacious to co-opt the term ‘One Nation’, two words which together are traditionally associated with the Tories, but we’re certainly going to be hearing a lot more about it. Undoubtedly ‘One Nation’ is primed to become the flagship policy of the Labour Party for at least the next two years.

So what is ‘One Nation’? Well, that’s the thing, we’re not really that sure. Ed’s speech was a little devoid of policy and so, right now, ‘One Nation’ seems a little…vacuous. Exactly what ‘One Nation’ is and how it translates in to real policy is something that the Labour Party need to articulate and disseminate quickly.

Failing to add substance to the ‘One Nation’ theme would be to repeat the mistakes of the Conservative Party and their ‘Big Society’ initiative. Relaunched on four separate occasions, ‘Big Society’ sounded all fluffy and wonderful but in truth, like a cloud, it was vaporous. As Conservative MP Jo Johnson (that’s right, Boris’s brother) put it, ‘Big Society’ was ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘intangible’.

‘One Nation’ needn’t be that way. ‘One Nation’ can’t be that way. It has to mean something.

As Ed Miliband noted in his speech, economic inequality is on the increase in the UK. The gap between the richest and the poorest is growing and the working class can do little but watch as the already privileged work to enlarge their piece of a stagnated economic pie.

Exorbitant bonuses for bankers who have failed to facilitate economic growth and a Prime Minister and Chancellor who have awarded themselves a 5% tax cut while forcing student tuition fees through the roof are just two examples of the ways the system and the current government have promoted inequality.

A top heavy economy, one in which money is most concentrated among a few wealthy individuals, cannot grow. As money moves from the bottom to the top overall spending naturally decreases since the rich don’t need to spend as high a percentage of their income to live comfortably as those less well off do.

So simply from an economic standpoint ‘One Nation’ must redress the economic balance if we want to see sustainable growth.

But it is not only the economic polarization that needs fixing; economic asymmetry has bred social polarization in British society. Both the upper and working class see the other as free-loaders and cheats.

Both have a case. There are those in the upper class who have used their already privileged position to make further gains. Consider the expenses scandal, tax evasion worth over £14 billion in 2010/11 and the intricate web of crooked elite relationships that have been revealed by the Leveson and Hillsborough inquiries. The working class are, quite rightly, angry.

Unfortunately when that anger boils over, when the working class and those disenfranchised by the current system protest, occupy or even riot then those who want to maintain their privilege don’t describe these actions as what they really are: a reaction against simple unfairness. Instead they label the rioters as opportunists, the occupiers as lazy, the protesters as hooligans. And many in the upper class are quite happy to accept this ill-fitting stereotype, it maintains the illusion that what they have they earned on their own rather than through the accident of birth that gave them a double-barrelled surname.

‘One Nation’ has to tackle this class divide as well as the economic divide. In many ways these ailments will require a similar medicine. Reducing inequality will reduce the friction between classes. Furthermore reducing inequality is going to help the economy as a whole.

‘One Nation’ must start by taking on those who cheat the system for personal gain. Tax evasion and benefit fraud must be treated as equal wrongs. Under ‘One Nation’ it would make sense for HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to come together and share their expertise in cracking down on people who abuse the system. We need to treat tax evasion and benefit fraud as the same crime so that participating in one cannot be rationalised by the fact that people are participating in the other. ‘One Nation’ should tell people that if you are a tax evader you are just as bad as a benefit cheat and vice versa.

Second, ‘One Nation’ must encourage economic growth through progressive taxation. Giving a tax cut to millionaires won’t grow the economy because they aren’t going to spend that money, they don’t need to, it’s going to be put away in a bank, maybe a Swiss one, and never be seen or heard from again. ‘One Nation’ should put more money in the pockets of normal working people so that they can spend it on birthday parties and trips to the seaside that they couldn’t otherwise afford. This way the seaside fish and chip shop can stay in business, grow, hire more employees, buy more fish and potatoes and help grow the economy as a whole.

Third, ‘One Nation’ must stop the war on benefits. Yes, we should make sure that people aren’t cheating the benefit system but almost everybody who claims benefits are doing so fairly. A social safety net is vital to an economy, without it people are too busy worrying about where their next meal is coming from to even consider looking for work or inventing new products. Without a social safety net J.K. Rowling could never have written the Harry Potter series.

‘One Nation’ must assure the rich that their higher taxes are not being given away to cheats but should remind them that, in the long term, they, and everybody else, can become even wealthier by helping to grow the economy rather than looking to grab a greater portion of one that isn’t growing. The working class, meanwhile, need to be shown that the wealthiest, those who have benefited the most from the system, are putting their fair share back in. The working class must also be encouraged to climb the economic ladder by a social safety net that will catch them should they fall but only if those who can get back on that ladder do.

With the correct policies ‘One Nation’ has the potential to really improve class relations and trust among people is important to an economy. The different classes no longer trust each other. Fixing that is what ‘One Nation’ should be about.