Will a touch of populism bring either party victory in 2015?
The mood of the Conservative party changes quickly. Last Christmas, Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome and a former frontbencher, predicted that ‘David Cameron will not win an overall majority’, citing his failure to gain new voters or change constituency boundaries in time for 2015. In the summer, Tory spirits lifted: the economy appeared to be picking up, the United Kingdom Independence party was subsiding and Labour was having problems. But their angst returned with the conference season and they entered the autumn without a clear political strategy.
Ed Miliband’s energy pledge crystallised the Conservative dilemma. They could argue that Labour’s promise was too good to be true and – like all such promises – a con. Or they could try to outbid Labour on populism: ‘You want to parrot focus groups on energy? Well, wait until we do the same on immigration.’ In the event, they failed to make a decision, and by the time they had their counterarguments ready, the story had moved on.
There is an analysis that says the Conservatives failed to connect and inspire ordinary voters, and that this was what cost them a majority in the general election in 2010. The prime minister’s speech to his party conference tried to move beyond the accusation that Tories ‘dream of deficits and decimal points and dry fiscal plans’ and instead promised a popular ‘Conservative mission’ on welfare and education.
However, the Tory party’s biggest error of the current parliament came precisely when it stopped talking about decimal points and dry fiscal plans and when it decided the country could afford a cut in the top rate of tax for the highest earners – an inspiring move for the right. Before that, some people could accept the idea of Conservative-led government as a regrettable necessity when tough decisions have to be made. When the question suddenly became about handing money out, rather than clawing it back, support for the Conservatives plummeted.
George Osborne appeared to be learning from that mistake. He tried to extend the necessity-based argument into the next parliament by saying Britain should run a surplus once it has closed its annual deficit. Instead of inspiration and mission – Osborne’s repeated refrain, accompanied by an attack on the cost of Labour’s tax and spending commitment – was that his was a ‘serious plan for a grown-up country’, implying that only the immature would be taken in by Miliband.
The contradictions between Cameron and Osborne’s approaches meant neither really hit home. How can you talk about the consequences of headline-grabbing fiddling in the energy market when Help to Buy is doing the same in the mortgage market? How can you question Labour’s ability to take tough decisions with public money when you are ready to blow a few hundred million on a marriage tax allowance? And how can you accuse Miliband of kowtowing to Len McCluskey if you seem spooked every time Nigel Farage appears on the television?
In 2010, Labour had the same problem. Our best hit on the Tories was just after the new year when we pulled apart dozens of flaky pledges that they had made in opposition. In Alistair Darling we had a palpably more serious, less populist, candidate for chancellor than his opposite number. But we also looked reluctant to admit that our plans would mean public spending cuts, and this undermined us every time we accused the Conservatives of offering a false prospectus.
The Conservatives could adopt an attack on Labour themed around weakness and lack of seriousness, but it would require them to take a more grown-up approach to Europe and immigration. It would mean avoiding the temptation of ‘giveaways’ if budget forecast revisions offer Osborne some more fiscal options between now and 2015. Cameron would have to look unconcerned about his right flank and hope that the subsequent pressure on Labour turned the election into the kind of two-horse race that would pull UKIP voters back into the Conservative fold.
I suspect the Conservatives lack the self-discipline for such a campaign. Instead, we are more likely to see them pursuing the populist route. And the forces pushing in this direction are not straightforwardly left or right. There are some in the Labour party who might instinctively oppose an atavistic attempt to control prices, but who would be mollified if it went down well on the doorstep. Similarly, the desire for crowd-pleasing and expensive measures in the Conservative party comes as much from modernisers as traditionalists.
What does an election look like where both sides choose populist arguments over ones based around credibility? The underlying question becomes: how far would either side go? It is a lot easier to put across arguments you find distasteful or stupid if you locate them in the mouths of the voters – few politicians make a speech on immigration without resorting to this. Nevertheless, each party does have limits. On immigration, for example, Labour gets vertigo when it ascends to a certain height of populism. On regulation, Conservatives feel dishonest suggesting that you can simply legislate your way to better living standards. The other limit – what is actually possible in tough times – can be circumvented if you focus on the small and symbolic, like the government’s household benefit cap.
If this is the road politics goes down, people will start to see the agenda as the key to victory: keep it on ‘our’ issues and we will win. What may go unexamined is the assumption behind populism of left or right: if I repeat what you say, will you like me more? Probably. If I repeat what you say, will you let me run your country? In May 2015, we may get at least a partial answer.
Steve Van Riel was the Labour party’s director of policy and research at the 2010 general election
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