Winning from the centre
It may be three years away but much of the ground and many of the central arguments that look set to dominate the next general election are already starting to emerge. Lots may change before 2015. However, one thing is crystal clear: this is not the position David Cameron and the Conservatives wanted to be in as they prepare for a second term.
George Osborne had mapped out a political road which, though rocky at first, envisioned the next election being framed around the central message that his party had dealt with the economic crisis, that the Tories were once again the party of economic competence and that the sweet little pre-election tax-cut goodies he was throwing around were merely a foretaste of what a single-party Conservative government would do after polling day.
Yet ever since Danny Alexander made that fateful appearance on Newsnight in which he admitted the books would not be balanced by 2015 and that both government parties would go into the next election promising even more cuts, all bets have been off. The next election was suddenly up for grabs and both coalition parties have ever since been furiously reworking their strategies for the new and altered terrain ahead.
For the Lib Dems, the anxiety is fuelled by the realisation that their hasty post-election fusion with the Conservatives in order to win some credit for rescuing the economy has not worked. The demise of flagship policies over tuition fees and electoral reform mean they are unlikely to have many, if any, hard policy ‘wins’ to offer up to voters in 2015. Rafael Behr’s excellent recent piece in the New Statesman shows the Lib Dems are already war-gaming life without Nick Clegg, with many key figures actively trying to engineer a leftward shunt simply in order to avoid meltdown at the polls.
The Conservatives too feel they need to be seen shifting ground. David Cameron’s recent kite-flying in Kent during which he advocated cutting housing benefit from under-25s and Michael Gove’s plans to trip back to the 1950s with the reintroduction of a two-tier education system highlight the internal and external pressures the Tories are feeling to venture out to the ideological fringe in order to offer something fresh and distinctive for 2015. Gone are the huskies, the ‘greenest government ever’ tag is no more, and the veneer of the ‘big society’ has flaked away.
All this presents Labour with a strategic opportunity. Ed Miliband can now define himself in his own terms, as a true leader for everyone in the UK, with a vision for a Britain more united socially and more open economically than it was before. Elections are won from the centre ground and Ed needs to own it authentically with a compelling vision for the 21st century and a strategy to win in 2015.
Here in Wales there are signs that a united, one country vision can reap electoral reward. In 2011 Welsh Labour fought the assembly elections on a platform of listening and responding to the change families up and down the land wanted to see. Our central manifesto pledges were tackling youth unemployment with the creation of a Welsh jobs fund; changing the opening hours of GP surgeries to fit around people’s busy lives; increasing frontline spending in schools over the block grant; funding 500 PCSOs and; rolling out the Flying Start childcare scheme. Taken together with the policies we already had of keeping top-up fees low and protecting cherished free bus passes and free prescriptions it proved to be successful renewal in government through practical policies crafted in the experience of people’s lives.
The centre-ground is opening up and the next election will be decided upon it. The challenge for Labour, right across the UK, is how to protect people and communities from the worst of the cuts, while at the same time connecting a message and a policy platform that is progressive, distinctive and ambitious.
As we move to command the centre-ground once again we would do well to reflect on social and political thinking from Labour’s past, while keeping our eyes fixed squarely on the future. Yes, austerity will be with us for a while, but that’s never been a bar on our party achieving great things. Indeed, some of our greatest achievements came from ambitious thought in times of severe economic difficulties. It was during these times that the destiny of our party connected with the destiny of the British people.
That moment is arriving once more.
Ken Skates is Welsh assembly member for Clwyd South. He tweets @KenSkatesAM
Big Society, Conservatives, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, election 2015, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Michael Gove, Nick Clegg, Wales