Labour’s new challenge: Not being David Cameron

Talk to people on the centre-left of British politics at the moment, or read their articles, blog posts and tweets, and there’s a justified sense of achievement. The Labour party is united. It has a decent poll lead. The government is performing poorly and appears to be in a state of permanent incipient collapse, constantly teetering on the edge of a hole they just dug themselves.

Nor is the unity and poll lead purely a result of government failure. Ed Miliband’s conference speech introduced a ‘One Nation’ theme which has been such a hit that there now seems to be a 24 hour rolling policy seminar run by Britain’s think-tanks to explore, explain and co-opt it.

Everywhere I go, I  hear earnest pamphlet writers explaining why ‘One Nation’ means we need to do what their pamphlets suggests; quondam advisers and gurus subtly hinting that ‘one nation’ was their idea, so they get to define what it means; junior frontbenchers shoving the words ‘One Nation’ into every paragraph of their speeches in an energetic attempt to appear both loyal and forward-thinking.

It might not sound much, but these are the signs of a political community in writhing ecstasy. Tickle our erogenous zones and we organise a seminar. Delight us, and we write an article for the Fabian review. Inspire us, and we control-C, Control-V your rhetoric into all we say and do.

Mr Miliband, sir, your speech remains a hit, a palpable hit.

This success has changed the Labour party landscape. The battle against being the Labour party of 1982, 1952 and 1932 – divided, angry, split, and utterly unelectable – has now, thanks to Ed Miliband’s speech (and yes, his overall leadership) been won.

There remains restlessness and disagreement beneath the surface, over Public Sector pay, over what our deficit reduction plans actually mean, over where we will stand in public services, immigration and welfare. Yet these disagreements are muted, appear manageable, or distant.  They may remain so for good. At some point even the most radical of the British left will wonder if it’s worth running a knife across the party on socialist principles, when the government opposite provides a more urgent target.

So, those, like me, who  felt that Labour needed a big, defining fight have been confounded. The centre-left social democratic show remains firmly on the road.  (Why do I long for a fight? Partly to show we had learned from our loss, partly because fights clarify, define, make real, make your ideas smarter, tougher, harder. Partly because I am right, and everyone else is wrong).

Yet there’s a danger to this success. The leader of the Labour party can see it every Wednesday in the panicked, astonished eyes of the Prime Minister.

For David Cameron once united the disparate wings of his party behind a big transformational national mission. David Cameron once had the travelling roadshow of policy seminars telling us what his mission meant. David Cameron had a vision for a better future possessed of a certain definitional elusiveness. He had the endless articles about the changing nature of the boundaries of the state. David Cameron had the gurus and the columnists and the front-benchers pilfering his prose. Yes, David Cameron was the future, once.

Now, though, all that has gone, and the Prime Minister has nothing to govern with but faded personal charisma, unravelling party loyalty and appeals to self-interest.

Perhaps Cameron even knows his error. In his conference speech, David Cameron set out the Prime Minister he might have been. It was attractive picture: positive, real, grounded in the challenges and realities of government. For half an hour we enjoyed a pleasant fantasy of what a Conservative government could be. Yet it had nothing to do with the reality of the government he leads, to which this weeks panicked idiocy has immediately returned us.

Are we on the left like Cameron? Never. We recoil at it.  The ghost of Philip Blond doesn’t haunt us, surely? Our task – the One Nation task is nothing like the Big Society, or Liberal Conservatism, or ‘Progressive ends, Conservative means’?

True. It is different. Cameron’s rebranding of the Conservative party was, at its heart, cynical. Cameron’s leadership was a marketing exercise, combined with party management. That’s why many of the most liberal conservatives were strangely disconnected to the ‘liberal conservative’ project. From a grammar stream in every school, to Human rights, to inheritance tax, the reality always undercut the rhetoric.

No-one, not even the Labour party’s worst enemy, could argue that it is currently cynical. We’ve been cynical, and are now rejecting that cold past for earnest enthusiasm.

Our challenge might have a different cause, but it contains the same elements. David Cameron failed to define what he wished to achieve because he knew that if he did so he would either divide his party or alienate his electorate.

He wished to do neither, so did nothing but babble pleasantries.

We know what we wish to achieve, but fear what the achieving will require of us. Confronted with the conundrum of how to hold down debt, support growth, fund public services, protect frontline jobs, protect much-loved institutions and meet changing social needs, there is a temptation to take refuge in good intentions and windy phrases. Fear splits, and you end up with language like this.*

David Cameron took the same refuge, and look where he ended up. In Number 10, slowly disintegrating.

So, even though it’s dull, and unpopular and probably unhelpful, I’m still all for having a fight.

On the left, we’re now all agreed on the why, and the destination. It’s the how that will define us.

That’s what Cameron failed to answer, and what we must. No matter how painful it is.

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*The other option, and one that I suspect will be increasingly attractive, will be to punt this task. To say that local institutions, social groups, and so on should have the duty of resolving the contradictions we cannot handle at the centre.

This would be to mistake identifying the best mechanism of delivering solutions for the solution itself. You can devolve all the power you like to local institutions, and it would in itself be worthy and helpful, but if they don’t have any money, or compulsive authority, they’ll be as lost as central government. Quite often, I hear us talk about local powers, and think,’ ah yes, I’ve seen the future and it is a Local Enterprise partnership.’ Or perhaps more accurately, a co-operative local enterprise partnership.

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