Cameron is not just out of ideas – he never had one.
Futility is easily revealed by hindsight but when William Hague presented his shadow cabinet with copies of Philip Gould’s ‘The Unfinished Revolution’ – inscribed with ‘know thine enemy’ – he might have been hoping for at least some lessons to be learnt.
Gould’s story of Labour modernisation starts in the 1980s as the ‘land Labour forgot’. After a week of reheating Thatcherism through Right to Buy and selling off shares in Lloyds, the 1980s looks like a land the Conservative party never left.
It would do Gould’s legacy a disservice to suggest that anyone could match his influence on modern British politics. In Lynton Crosby the Conservatives have found a man who falls short of providing the vision needed in such a fractured political climate.
The perceived wisdom is that it is Crosby who is holding back the Conservative campaign with a relentless focus on economic responsibility. But a recent flurry of unfunded announcements suggests otherwise, and it is becoming obvious that Crosby’s campaign is only reaching the very low bar set for him by David Cameron’s leadership.
It has also been said that voters will go to the polls on 7 May longing for big ideas and hopeful optimism but that they will not find any on the ballot paper. To think like that ignores what is on offer: no one, for example, would think the Scottish National party are lacking a fundamentally different idea for how the country is run.
Ed Miliband has too set out a big idea, and unlike the SNP, his is a sensible theme for governing. It represents a shift in how the game is played, done so within the boundaries of fiscal responsibility. There are the retail offers on the cost-of-living but his premiership will also be defined by rebuilding the foundations of our society – a single-service National Health Service, stronger market regulations and higher pay.
And he has done so because he has used opposition well. It is much easier to encourage debate from the relative safety of the opposition benches but too tempting to forget the sole focus of an opposition is to remove the government. Ed Miliband avoided that trap, and the result is a Labour party more united than at most previous elections.
His strategy has paid off and it showed in last week’s challengers debate. Taking on Nigel Farage for exploiting people’s fears over immigration is what any Labour leader should do. But the marked difference between the leader at this election and the leader at the last election is that he took the opportunity to criticise Farage’s failure to address people’s concerns, too. That was instinctively Blue Labour even if he is not exclusively so.
Cameron spent his opposition years harnessing good press, not good ideas. The strategy did not deliver him a majority in 2010 and it might not even get him into government in 2015. For each husky and hoody he hugged, Cameron put himself further away from presenting an himself as a substantial leader with ideas beyond the thought that maybe one day he would like to have a go at running the country.
He seized the big society early on and then abandoned in government the sensible critique set out by Jesse Norman about the need for a different delivery of public services, and allowed it to become a metaphor for cuts.
The failure to take on a vision for what he thinks modern Britain ought to look like means that he has resorted to telling the public that the answers to the challenges of today can be found in policy papers from the 1980s and early 90s. They even brought out John Major to lecture the country about strong government as though his five years of backbench rebellions, a leadership contest and a crushing election defeat never happened.
The lack of a concrete idea is all the more baffling when you consider that the increasingly hollow Conservative party grassroots – party membership has halved under Cameron, with an average age of 68 – have punched above their weight in providing attempts to reposition the leadership. Renewal, Bright Blue and, most recently, the Good Right have all attempted to finish what Cameron started and present a modern Conservative party in tune with 21st century Britain. Cameron’s biggest mistake will be ignoring all of them.
If they lose the election, as they are on course to, the temptation for the Tory leadership will be to blame the straitjacket of Lynton Crosby for holding back Cameron. To do so would be to miss that there might not be much for the straitjacket to hold back.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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