‘UK general election: ‘Happy Warrior’ confronts bomber pilot’, Financial Times, 10 April 2015

What constitutes a good week for a party leader during an election campaign depends very much on which leader you are talking about, as well as the kind of campaign they have made up their mind to fight.

David Cameron, for instance, is clearly intent on pursuing a classic incumbent strategy — so much so that Stanley Baldwin’s (unsuccessful) “Safety First” campaign of 1929 or Harold Macmillan’s (successful) “Don’t Let Labour Ruin it” warning in 1959 look daring and, indeed, positive by comparison.

For Mr Cameron, every high profile broadcast appearance is as much a threat as it is an opportunity. Think of the prime minister as a wartime bomber pilot: if he manages to drop a few incendiaries somewhere near the target and make it back to base in one piece, then it is mission accomplished.

So far, despite taking flak during a TV interview with Jeremy Paxman, Mr Cameron has come through pretty much unscathed, even if he can’t claim to have inflicted as much damage on the enemy as Bomber Command (in the shape of Lynton Crosby) might have hoped for. Certainly, Labour will be worried about polling showing that the prime minister’s job approval ratings have moved into positive territory for the first time in four years. This suggests that what he is doing, while it may be spectacularly dull, might actually be proving effective.

Given his plan to play the “Happy Warrior” in last week’s televised debate, it is tempting to extend the military metaphor to Ed Miliband. In fact, perhaps appropriately with the Grand National almost upon us, it is the sport of kings that provides a better analogy. Before the off, Labour’s leader wasn’t much fancied. But, since then, punters who previously weren’t paying much attention have noticed that there’s more to him than they had realised. Indeed, rather than fading, let alone falling at the first fence, Mr Miliband seems, if anything, to be gaining strength: polls show he is still unpopular but markedly less so than before the campaign proper began to raise his profile.

For the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, it’s not so much a question of raising his profile as raising himself from the dead. Somehow, he has to remind voters that, to quote Mr Cameron on Tony Blair, “he was the future once” without at the same time reminding them of how he betrayed the promise he displayed and the promises he made back in 2010.

Just as problematically, in order to be able to distance the Lib Dems from the once-again-wicked Tories and yet still trumpet his party’s achievements in coalition with them, the deputy prime minister somehow has to place himself firmly at the scene of the crime as the very same time as coming up with a convincing alibi.

“Good luck with that!”, some will cry — particularly if they are Labour sympathisers long since driven to distraction by the deputy prime minister’s infuriating blend of sanctimoniousness and self-abasement. However, some of the instant polling from last week’s debate suggests that less partisan voters may be a little (although only a little) more willing to swallow his man-in-the-middle-doing-the-best-he-can act. Mr Clegg’s ratings are still poor, but at just over minus 30, they are, like Mr Cameron’s, the best they’ve been since 2011.

Judging by the numbers, Nigel Farage’s shtick seems to be working too. Like an ageing rock star playing yet another moneymaking stadium gig, he has clearly decided to give his fan base the songs they have come to hear rather than risking any new material in a misguided attempt to reach out to a new audience. Polls suggest that his so called “shock and awful” strategy to mobilise his “grumpy old men” base will not prevent UK Independence party suffering some sort of squeeze. But it may mean it can avoid dropping into single figures.

Single figures is where the Green party will almost certainly end up, despite the fact that its leader Natalie Bennett can at least claim to have avoided another “brain fade” moment in the course of the campaign so far. This will suit Mr Miliband just fine. Sadly for him, however, the award for best actor in a leading role in the first fortnight has nevertheless gone, by common consent, to a woman — the Scottish National party’s Nicola Sturgeon.

Mr Miliband, though, can perhaps take some small comfort from the fact that, while Ms Sturgeon’s assured performance will do nothing to help Labour in Scotland, it may make it harder for the Conservatives to argue that she should have no say in who forms the government of the UK. Come May 8, that could prove crucial.

[This article was originally published at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7b04f38e-dec5-11e4-8a01-00144feab7de.html]

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‘The Napoleonic truth about coalitions: getting most seats doesn’t mean you win’, Guardian, 6 April 2015

Imagine this. It’s Sunday 18 June 1815 near a little-known place called Waterloo. Battle lines are drawn when word comes down the line that Napoleon Bonaparte is to be declared the winner without a shot being fired. He, after all, has about 73,000 soldiers at his disposal, making his army larger than the one commanded by Wellington, who can only boast 68,000 (a sizeable proportion of whom aren’t even British). Never mind that Blücher’s Prussian force, supporting Wellington, is some 50,000 strong. The French, as the largest single contingent, have every right to run the show.

Absurd, no? Yet, if we fast forward two hundred years, this is exactly the argument that’s being made to support the idea that, should the Tories emerge as the largest party in another hung parliament after 7 May, they are somehow entitled to govern the UK for another five years or, at the very least, to get first go at trying to form a coalition or a minority administration.

This might be the common wisdom. But it is nonsense, nonetheless. As Napoleon found to his cost, you may have more troops than your nemesis; but if he’s managed to put together an alliance that outnumbers you then you will end up the loser, even if, to quote Wellington, it turns out to be a damned nice thing – “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”.

Numbers count. Of course they do. But when it comes to forming governments, physics always trumps maths. Who gets to govern depends on what force they exert within the system, singly and collectively. Clearly, having large numbers of MPs helps. But so too does being (to use the political science jargon) pivotal – capable of deciding, by virtue of your ability as a party to jump either way, which one of a number of potential combinations can actually govern.

That is why, even though they underplayed their hand woefully in the ensuing negotiations, the Lib Dems were actually in a very powerful position in 2010, especially once they’d decided they wanted to be in government rather than merely support one from the outside.

That is also why the Lib Dems (along with, if the polls are correct, the SNP and also the DUP) may well be in an equally (if not more) powerful position in 2015 – even if, this time around, they end up with only half the seats they won then.

But, some purists will cry, what about the constitution? Wasn’t Stanley Baldwin, with 258 MPs, allowed to “face the House” in 1924 before giving way (after losing a confidence vote) to a minority Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald, with just 191 MPs?

Well yes, but what of it? For one thing, Baldwin was playing a highly sophisticated game, having already made up his mind that it would be in the long-term interests of the country, as well as the Conservative party, to allow “the Socialists” their first crack at government under controlled conditions. For another, it was all a very long time ago – a precedent, maybe, but hardly a convention that can bind 21st-century politicians.

To think that those same politicians will be bound by the civil service’s cabinet manual is equally absurd. The manual is not holy writ. It can suggest but it cannot prescribe. Ultimately (to use the pol-sci jargon just one more time) it’s a case of freestyle bargaining. Coming out of the election with more MPs than any other party doesn’t grant you any special rights, even if you’re the sitting prime minister. Those outraged by all this may come up with one last argument, namely that the UK’s proverbial sense of fair play will be offended if the party with the most seats doesn’t get to govern, or at least get first go.

But why, either inherently or rhetorically, would that be any less fair than handing power to a party with what would still be less than half of the seats in the House of Commons and only just over a third of the votes in the country?

Right now, those most determined to create a self-fulfilling prophecy (or at least a degree of momentum) in favour of the largest single party are Conservatives – presumably because they believe they will be that party. It is perfectly possible, however, that Labour will finish just ahead of the Tories – and perfectly possible, as the result of choices made by the “minor” parties, that Ed Miliband might nevertheless be unable to wrest the keys to No 10 from David Cameron’s patrician grasp.

The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, it seems, is no longer able to prevent either its party system or its parliament from looking more European. So we need to realise, as they do on the continent, that sometimes those who “win” elections can still end up on the losing side.

[This article was originally published at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/06/napoleonic-truth-coalitions-most-votes-doesnt-win]

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‘Do party leaders really matter?’, FT, 3 April 2015

As TV debate postmortems continue into the weekend, we would do well to step back and ask ourselves a simple question — one that’s far more fundamental than who won and who lost on Thursday night. Do party leaders really matter when it comes to people deciding which way to vote?

The answer, at least according to decades of research by political scientists, can be summed up as follows. Leaders probably do matter. But they matter more to some voters than to others, they matter more in some countries than in others — and we are still arguing about precisely how much they matter.

Some people, it seems, are more easily swayed by leaders than others. If you are not particularly into politics, if you don’t identify very strongly with any of the parties, and if you watch a lot of television, then there’s more chance that your vote will be influenced by the men and women at the top. Given that all this is true of a large, maybe even an increasing, number of UK voters, then, clearly, leader effects in this general election cannot be easily dismissed.

On the other hand, those effects are mitigated by context. Leaders seem to matter a little less in parliamentary than in presidential systems, in media environments where the tone is set by public rather than purely commercial broadcasters, and in political cultures that can be characterised as consensual rather than majoritarian.

Even after five years of coalition government, one would be hard-pressed to classify the UK along with Europe’s Nordic or Germanic polities, where compromise is prized above winner-takes-all. But given the UK is a parliamentary democracy where television’s treatment of politics continues to assume it should educate as well as entertain, then even those leaders with a realistic chance of running the country are unlikely to have as much influence on voters as their US counterparts.

Just as importantly, as Ohio State University’s Anthony Mughan stresses in a recent academic article, voters do not (because realistically they cannot) completely separate leaders from their parties. Nor, for that matter, can they possibly judge one leader without at least implicitly comparing them to their opponents.

As a result, the chances of a voter deciding to change their vote simply because they are impressed by one party’s leader are slimmer than is often assumed. For that to happen, said leader, especially if their party is not highly regarded and especially if their opponents are not utterly hopeless, has to be very impressive indeed — which is why the Conservatives may end up disappointed if they attempt to frame this election as all about a choice, not just between competence and chaos, but between David “when it comes to who’s prime minister, the personal is national” Cameron and Ed “just not up to it” Miliband.

Neither during the first week of the campaign proper, nor in either of the televised showdowns, has Mr Cameron stood so head-and-shoulders above everyone else that thousands, let alone millions, of voters who might otherwise have steered clear will be flocking to his party.

Indeed, detailed polling suggests that it is Mr Miliband who has done himself and his party a few favours, managing to significantly erode (although not to completely override) widespread doubts about his strength, his decisiveness, and whether he would be up to the job of prime minister.

Moreover, he seems to have managed this at the same time as strengthening his claim — an important one for challengers, research suggests — that he is more “in touch” with the electorate than the incumbent.

Tory strategists will hope that this is a one-off boost rather than the beginning of a trend. They will also hope that Nicola Sturgeon’s impressive turn on Thursday night doesn’t blunt their bid to persuade the English electorate that the SNP should have no part to play in governing at Westminster as well as Holyrood. If they are wrong, then they could be in serious trouble.

[Originally published at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a3e07878-d9f7-11e4-9b1c-00144feab7de.html]

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‘An over-chillaxed David Cameron drops a brick with his bombshell’, FT, 24 March 2015

Either David Cameron is one of the more unusual men ever to have become British prime minister — one of those rare birds in politics (the last was Stanley Baldwin back in 1937) who quit while they are genuinely ahead — or he has dropped a bloody great brick as well as a bombshell.

Mr Cameron’s “announcement” (if that is what we can call it) that he will not serve a third term was surely an unforced error from an overly chillaxed old Etonian forgetting who he was chatting to, rather than a Machiavellian masterstroke from a politician at the height of his powers. Bombshells, when deliberately dropped, are carefully controlled explosions. This one could cause considerable collateral damage.

True, it does not necessarily do the Conservatives any harm if talk turns to the issue of leadership. After all, one of the party’s key campaign themes is “the choice” not just between competence and chaos but between the man who at least looks and sounds like a prime minister (even if he does not always act like one) and the lesser-fancied Ed Miliband, Labour leader. Trouble is, that choice has suddenly got more complicated: would you like that Dave with a side-order of Boris or Theresa or George? Or maybe someone we do not even know about yet?

Even worse, the prime minister’s slip is a massive distraction with a big opportunity cost. There are only six weeks until the election. Time is short — and therefore precious. All the time we are talking about whether Mr Cameron was right or not to say what he said, we are not talking about all the things Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ pugnacious election strategist, really wants us to be talking about. Namely: how the party’s long term economic plan is delivering a recovery that a spendthrift Labour party — in thrall to the unions and soft on scroungers — will only wreck.

Nor does it seem smart for a leader to tell a country that, generally speaking, prefers a plucky underdog, that he is already planning his triumphal farewell tour, let alone his victory celebrations.

Presuming for a moment that none of this makes any difference on May 7 and Mr Cameron scrapes back into Downing Street, it will definitely do so after May 8. Those he named as possible successors — Boris Johnson, Theresa May and George Osborne — will be under constant surveillance for anything that looks like an attempt to get ahead of their rivals. So too will anyone else who hopes, not altogether unreasonably, that the shine might have gone off all three of them, opening the way for a younger, outside challenger. Leadership speculation is destabilising anyway. Combined with the thrills and spills of a minority government — which may be the most likely outcome — it really will be something to behold.

There will be those who argue that the move by Mr Cameron was all part of a cunning plan. Some of the prime minister’s best friends have already tried to present it as such. But if that was the case, why were Conservative spinners suddenly sent out to reassure us that Mr Cameron’s second term would be a full term — when we know it will be nothing of the kind? It takes months to run a leadership election and any new leader would want to be in the job for at least a few months more before going to the country. Count backwards from May 2020, and that means Mr Cameron calling it a day in autumn 2019 at the absolute latest.

If Mr Cameron really is in the Baldwin mode, here is the big difference. Baldwin was handing over a massive majority to a successor — Neville Chamberlain — who virtually everyone agreed on, and who in the normal course of events would have had at least two more years to establish himself. More recent history — think Gordon Brown and Tony Blair — suggests even that is not a guaranteed recipe for success. It would be overdoing it to say that what Mr Cameron has accidentally suggested is a recipe for disaster. But it may not be far off.

[Originally published at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/3e14263a-d217-11e4-b66d-00144feab7de.html]

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‘The Labour Campaign, 2015: some educated guesses’, Political Studies Association Media Briefing, 24 March 2015

Labour will:

  • Focus as much as possible on measures contained in three of its five rather vague pledges – particularly on its popular (if not necessarily workable or sensible) offers on university tuition fees (a heat seeking missile aimed directly at those tempted to drift back to the Lib Dems or over to the Greens), on energy prices, on zero-hours contracts, on apprenticeships, on subsidised childcare, on smaller class sizes and, of course, on the NHS. On the latter, expect to hear a lot about ‘joining up care from home to hospital’ as well as more doctors and nurses with ‘time to care’. Labour, after all, can’t afford to be all doom and gloom – ‘over-delivering’ is all very well once you get into government, but too much ‘under-promising’ and you may not make it back there in the first place. Whether the public will warm to the words ‘better plan’ as they are repeated again and again (and again), remains to be seen.
  • Concentrate its attack operation on a) ‘the extreme cuts George Osborne doesn’t want you to know about’ and b) the apparent threat posed to the Health Service (notwithstanding its currently high public satisfaction levels) by another five years of Tory government and by UKIP, whose views on the issue supposedly prove it’s ‘more Tory than the Tories’. At the constituency rather than at the national level, transport – for which read the daily misery suffered by commuters – may also feature. Whatever, expect to hear the word ‘extreme’ as much as the words ‘better plan’. Extra points will be awarded to frontbenchers using them in the same sentence or two.
  • Point out, on the economy, that any recovery has not made up for the decline in living standards suffered by ‘the average family’ since 2010 and is only likely to benefit ‘the few’ rather than ‘the many’. Labour has no choice but to try and re-frame the economy in this way and, although evidence (admittedly from the US) shows that this rarely works for challengers, these are exceptional times: governments don’t normally contrive to preside over such a long-lasting stagnation in real wages.
  • As far as possible, avoid talking about issues ‘owned’ by other parties, most obviously immigration (UKIP) and cutting welfare to cut the deficit (the Tories). Political scientists have long argued that elections are essentially about ‘selective emphasis’ – about parties talking past each other rather than engaging with each other, about parties trying to up the salience of ‘their’ issues and downplaying their opponents’. For good or ill, this one will be no different. True, ‘balancing the books’ and ‘controls on immigration’ are, respectively, number one and number four of Labour’s five pledges. Stressing that every one of its spending commitments is fully costed and fully funded, and that it is promising to eliminate the deficit on current spending by the end of the next parliament, is important. But, like the promise to crack down on migrant benefits and exploitation, its primary purpose is to eliminate the negative – to close down debate by showing that Labour ‘gets it’ on the deficit, not to open up a new front.
  • Carry on with its pink bus road-trip, the novelty value of which seems to be creating local media buzz and mobilising activists, even if its impact on women voters – where Labour hopes to press home its advantage among the young and early middle-aged – is less certain.
  • Maintain and, where possible, improve on its voter contact operation in the marginals, worrying far less about winning back seats in ‘the South’ than in other (far less media-sexy but far more electorally fruitful) parts of England (including London as well as the North West and the Midlands), which often decide elections and where its prospects are generally brighter. Michael Ashcroft’s extensive constituency-level polling suggests that Labour’s belief that it has a better ‘ground game’ than the Tories, and that it can counter their money with its membership, is not always borne out in reality. That said, Ashcroft’s polling does suggest that Labour’s baseline activity is slightly higher, implying that the shift of resources out of London and into local organising presided over by General Secretary Iain McNicol may well have paid off. The release of trade unionists to help the party during the campaign itself will boost it further. It is also worth noting that, judging by research on constituency donations (by Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and Dave Cutts), the party is better than its Conservative counterpart at channelling them to where they are needed.
  • Mount what looks like a largely pointless rear-guard action to save seats in Scotland when it the party would arguably be better advised to cut its losses and divert resource to English marginals where it does stand a chance. Parties aren’t, however, wholly rational actors – and, even if they were, the Scottish Labour Party isn’t simply a branch operation that the UK Head Office can wind down in order to use cash and manpower more efficiently elsewhere. How much headspace should be taken up by fighting what looks like a losing battle north of the border can’t help but be an issue, however. Douglas Alexander may have to decide early on whether he’s going to do a Chris Patten and sacrifice his seat for the greater good of the party.
  • Try to get to the media to acknowledge that, whatever the common wisdom – assiduously promoted (for obvious reasons) by the Conservatives – who gets to form the next government (or even who gets to have first go at trying to form it) is determined not by who emerges on 8 May with most seats in the Commons but by who stands the best chance of avoiding defeat in a motion on a putative Queen’s Speech. Given that UKIP is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats, and if it really is true that the DUP and the Lib Dems could go either way, then Miliband stands a serious chance of becoming Prime Minister even if Labour wins fewer seats (let alone votes) than the Tories.

Labour won’t:

  • Be drawn any further on spending cuts that it might make. Those it will wheel out (for instance, scrapping police and crime commissioner elections) are clearly inadequate to the task, but are at least familiar and easy to understand. Moreover research suggests that most people cannot get their head around figures once the millions slide into the billions (or even when they don’t). Whether this will allow Ed Balls to escape the need to find replacement sources of revenue to fund Labour’s tuition fee and childcare promises now that George Osborne has pinched his plans on high-value pensions and bank taxes, who knows?
  • Go as far as some might like to promote the idea of a team by pushing frontbenchers to the fore while Miliband plays deep. This isn’t his style, and it would look too like what it was – an admission that he can’t hope to compete with Cameron on leadership. Whether the party can prevent potential leadership contenders beginning to freelance and show their paces should it look like Labour is heading for certain defeat is another matter.
  • Let go entirely of the accusation that Cameron is too scared to debate Miliband head-to-head, even though no-one now retains the hope that the accusation will somehow prompt the PM to change his mind.
  • Match Tory attacks on Miliband personally with its own coordinated ad hominem attack onCameron. Even though there is scope for one (the PM’s lack of grip on detail; his continually appeasement of his backbenchers; his lack of capacity and success in foreign affairs; the fact that he supposedly doesn’t know how the other half lives etc., etc.), Labour seems to have concluded that it should camp on the (relatively) high ground on this one – or at least to do all it can to avoid making the election about leadership.
  • Fret quite as much as it used to about the print media, even though it recognises its continuing power to set the broadcasters’ agenda. For one thing, the majority of newspapers are a lost cause (and have been since Miliband argued for Leveson-style statutory underpinning). For another, declining circulation (as well as increased attention paid to research on its limited effects) means that its spell, even if it hasn’t been completely broken, has (decades after it should have done), has at least begun to wear off.
  • Publicly acknowledge the full extent of any latent or manifest threat on the part of the Greens orUKIP – not because the party is complacent about such threats but because it has no intention of providing those parties with free publicity. Cue plenty of ‘I’m not here to talk about the Greens/UKIP, they can speak for themselves, I’m here to talk about Labour’s policies on…(etc., etc).’
  • Worry as much as people think about matching the Tories with clever on-line (and off-line) ads designed, as much as anything else, to so enrage your opponents that they end up talking about the issues which you, rather than they, own. Labour is more than capable of doing this – witness its ‘cut to the bone’ campaign launched at the end of last week. But much of its digital spend will be on below-the-radar direct contacts with targets and prospects to drum up both support and donation – although the ads can, of course, be usefully recycled for those, too.
  • Admit that it actually needs UKIP to do reasonably (but not too) well – at or near ten per cent would do nicely – in order a) to nick a few marginals off the Tories and b) to help the Lib Dems defend some of their seats against Conservative challengers. By the same token, Labour knows (but won’t say) that, while it will be taking take no prisoners when fighting the Lib Dems in the north, it badly needs them to hang on in the south against Tory opposition. The question of whether it tacitly promotes tactical voting by Labour supporters in those seats is a tricky one. It makes sense; but it will be a big ask. Moreover, many would argue that, in order to avoid the scenario where Labour wins more seats but fewer votes than the Conservatives, the party should campaign for every vote it can get, no matter where.
  • Admit that, although it seems unlikely it won’t achieve some sort of swing (the Tories, after all, will struggle to improve on their vote share in 2010 and Labour should poll around 31 per cent at worst), it has very little chance of winning more than around 280 seats or so. This is obviously nowhere near what it needs for a bare overall majority, let alone a comfortable one.
  • Go any further than it has done on which parties it will consider entering into a coalition or confidence and supply arrangements with. Given that, on paper at least, Labour has more options in this respect, it would be foolish to throw away that advantage by ruling any of them out unnecessarily. Attempts by the media to insist that ‘the electorate has a right to know’ (etc., etc.) will be relentlessly parried with the same standard formulations that have been used, perfectly effectively, by their European counterparts for decades: ‘Let’s wait for the voters to deliver their verdict before getting into hypothetical discussions’ (etc., etc.).
  • Lay out a list of ‘red lines’ – policies which it will not compromise on during any negotiations – unless, like refusing to scrap Trident, they are well-worn no-brainers. Maximum flexibility is the watchword. Attempts by the media to reduce it by demanding which policies are negotiable and which are not will be relentlessly parried with the same standard formulations that have been used, perfectly effectively, by their European counterparts for decades.
  • Talk up its chances of defeating Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam too much, except of course in the constituency itself (expect plenty of ‘can’t win here’ from both sides); but it will work like mad, with the help of lots of students, to do decapitate him – not least because doing so could materially alter the ideological complexion of the Lib Dems’ parliamentary party, trigger the election of a more Labour-friendly acting leader, and therefore mean Ed Miliband has a better chance of persuading them (providing the arithmetic doesn’t point the other way) to put him, rather than David Cameron, into Downing Street.

[A revised and edited version of this post was published on 2nd April at https://theconversation.com/five-things-labour-will-do-in-this-campaign-and-five-things-it-definitely-wont-39662]

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‘It’s competence, stupid: Labour should have done more with the Tories’ mistakes’, New Statesman, 1 April 2015

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.

[Originally published at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/04/its-competence-stupid-labour-should-have-done-more-tories-mistakes]

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‘How Left is Labour?’, Compass, 23 March 2015

Red Ed.  His opponents swear he is.  Some of his supporters wish to God he was.  For every Tory politician who claims that Labour has moved left under his leadership, there’s a Labour activist who only wishes that it really were the case.  Where does the truth actually lie?

Some of the rhetoric certainly sounds – or at least has sounded – radical.  This after all, is a party led by a man who thinks some businesses are predatorsrather than producers, who’s singled out particular firms – notably energy and payday loans companies – and promised to fix their prices while he ‘resets the market’, who’s repeatedly promised to do something about bankers bonuses, who’s not happy about the growth of zero-hours contracts, poverty pay, or the exploitation of cheap foreign labour, and who believes the state has a role in not only in regulating capital’s tendency toward oligopoly but even in owning and running services which have previously been privatized. That same state, he believes, should provide more free childcare and greater subsidies for those going onto higher education.

And the radicalism doesn’t stop at the economy and public services.  This, after all, is a party prepared to stop a government bent on joining the US in military strikes against Syria in its tracks.  Yet Labour has by no means abandoned its internationalism.  It remains heavily committed to overseas aid and to meeting challenging targets on climate change.  It is also absolutely wedded to the idea that the UK remain an active, even leading, member of the EU.

Labour is also far from conservative on the constitution.  Officially at least, it is also determined to democratize Westminster’s archaic second chamber, to consider reforms to the electoral system, and to preside over an unprecedented devolution of power (and presumably spending) from national to local government.

Have voters noticed?  To some extent, yes.  YouGov regularly asks voters to place themselves, the parties and the party leaders on a scale running from minus one-hundred (very left-wing) through zero (dead centre) to plus one-hundred (very right-wing). Ed Miliband is seen as considerably more left-wing than Gordon Brown and much more so than Tony Blair.  And Labour as a whole is seen to have shifted a little more to the left than it was in 2010.

But the shift isn’t that great – and in some recent surveys, it appears to be thought of as a little more centrist of late.  Whether this has got anything to do with Labour’s underlying shift to the right on immigration (courtesy of Yvette Cooper) and, with the symbolic exception of the bedroom tax, on welfare(courtesy of Rachel Reeves), is a moot point.  But, whatever, it may be no bad thing.  It doesn’t do Labour any harm that the Tories are seen as significantly more right-wing than Labour is seen as left-wing (the latest figures are +51 vs -36), but as a general election approaches, it doesn’t do to be stranded too far from the average voter (on -7).

Miliband, incidentally, is seen as slightly more left-wing than Labour as a whole, in contrast to Cameron, who is seen as slightly more centrist than the Conservatives – one reason (among many, say his critics) why Ed, unlike Dave, is perceived as a liability rather than an asset to his party.

On the other hand, the fact that voters seem to think that Labour (and Ed) has shifted marginally in their direction recently might be a legitimate cause for concern for activists, confirming fears that some of Labour’s (and Ed’s) radical rhetoric isn’t be matched by the reality of its manifesto offer.  The Tories and their supporters in the media might be desperate to pin the anti-business charge on Miliband, but Labour has been making serious efforts recently to mend fences. We’ll still hear something about bankers’ bonuses in the election, but anyone expecting a Labour government to break up the banks might have a long wait.

The same goes for serious constitutional reform – and probably for devolution, which always looks more attractive when you haven’t got your hands on the levers of power than when you have.  And given the party’s support for the fast-tracking of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Act last year, as well its harrying of the government over the abolition of control orders, civil liberties campaigners should expect much either. Moreover, anyone hoping to see some movement on Trident, which includes many of Labour’s parliamentary candidates, shouldn’t expect anything at all.

Even on the NHS and social care, which Labour will be campaigning hard on up until May, you have to wonder whether Ed is guilty of willing the ends but not the means.  Certainly, the additional funding coming from various revenue-raising gimmicks announced won’t be anywhere near enough to plug the looming gap between demand and supply.  Indeed, if there is one area in which his oft-expressed desire to ‘under-promise’ and ‘over-deliver’ risks going unfulfilled, this is surely it.

Still, all campaigns are a trade-off between inspiring core supporters and reassuring floating voters. We’ll see on 7 May whether Ed – Red or otherwise – has got that balance right. If he hasn’t, he’s toast.  And even if he has, he’s bound to find that getting it right in opposition is a whole lot easier than it is in office.

[Originally published at http://www.compassonline.org.uk/how-left-is-labour/]

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