But for the hashtag, it could have been 2001. Left-wingers of varying hues, from the faintest hint of ochre to the deepest shade of red, congregated to predict a better – if pleasingly non-specific – future, to mutter darkly about triangulation and surrendering the intellectual argument to the right, and to cheer themselves that the centre had moved, drastically and inevitably, to the left. Even the meeting’s title – Can the Tories ever win again? – harked back to a happier time, when Blair was master of all he surveyed and the Conservatives genuinely believed that while Britain hadn’t liked the first balding and donnish Eurosceptic they’d offered up, this one was really going to be the charm.
The problem is, while the analysis was all firmly rooted in 2012, the conclusion was straight out of 2001, too. In his pamphlet ‘The Conservative Dilemma’, Jon Trickett MP revealed that the Conservatives were on the brink. Generation Y, as and when it starts bothering to vote, isn’t going to be voting Conservative. On the core issues – public services, equal rights, taxes for the rich – the country is moving away from the Conservatives. Tomorrow belongs to us. The assault upon the NHS, the lukewarm half-embrace of marriage equality, the own-goal of the 50p tax cut have all undone the detoxification efforts of 2005-10. It all adds up to a Conservative project that is headed for the knacker’s yard.
As it happens, I agree with the Trickett diagnosis. In the life of governments, there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. For Margaret Thatcher, that before and after came with the Westland affair. From that moment onward, she was no longer the only centre of Conservative power in the parliamentary party. For Blair, that before and after was Iraq. When the history of the Cameron premiership is written, the 50p tax cut will be seen as a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the government’s lifecycle. Of course, both Thatcher and Blair were able to pull off electoral triumphs in their ‘after’ phase: but my feeling is that Cameron lacks the ability, the essential feel for the centre of the country, that allowed those prime ministers to survive past their own half-lives. Cameron is more of a Major or a Brown, who never recovered from their own crises: Major was broken by the ERM and Brown was undone by the election that never was.
Where I part ways with ‘The Conservative Dilemma’, however, is in the optimism of its conclusion. Cameroonism is finished, sayeth Compass, which means the time is ripe for ‘bold and radical’ policies. This is the political equivalent of ‘rhubarb rhubarb’. It is impossible to imagine that anyone will, at any place or at any time, call for policies that are ‘cowardly and conservative’. ‘Bold and radical’ is code for ‘I don’t have any ideas’. And more important, and less happily for Labour, is not the disintegration of Cameroonism but the failure of Osbornomics. The tragedy for Ed Miliband is, when he becomes prime minister in 2015, he won’t be pursuing policies that are bold or radical. Instead the adjectives will be painful and prolonged.
Last time the Conservatives reached their ‘after’, they bequeathed Labour with economy that was in rude health, both nationally and globally. The best-case scenario for Ed Miliband is an economy with limited, export-driven, growth, a sluggish, if not actively stagnating national economy, and an increased deficit. That would mean that the first task for Ed Balls at the Treasury would be identifying and implementing swingeing cuts. Assuming that Labour would also have to implement a hefty stimulus package – say forty to eighty billion, perhaps more – it would also have to make that package revenue neutral over the course of the parliament. That means painful and unpleasant choices. There are no easy answers. No ‘bold’ or ‘radical’ cuts. Just cuts, with the awful possibility of a British Golden Dawn or a Front Nationale making advances across the country.
“Vote Labour: It’ll be bad, but we’ll put ordinary jobs over extraordinary tax cuts” isn’t a particularly inspiring or optimistic offer. It is, however, the offer we’ll have to make, the only offer not mired in untruth and half-baked economics. Ed Miliband has realised that. The rest of us need to catch up.
Compass, Conservatives, Ed Miliband, election 2015, Jon Trickett