By Natan Doron and Olly Parker
When an election was called in 1964 opposition leader Harold Wilson told friends he was relieved. Why? Because, he explained, he had “run out of things to say”. What Wilson’s relief teaches us is that leading the opposition is one of the hardest jobs in British politics. David Cameron will more than sympathise with this. But what can we in the Labour Party learn from Cameron’s spell across the benches from Blair and Brown? And what do those lessons mean for Ed Miliband, the current occupant of politics’ least forgiving office?
One of the main lessons is that there will always be at least one section of your party plotting against you. The Tories tried to kick Cameron out of his job several times. Over grammar schools, poor by-election results and anger over his approach to climate change, Cameron faced many a Tory Party rebellion and unlike his predecessors Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard, Cameron survived. There were no public show-downs and no sackings high-profile enough to do real damage. What Cameron did was hold his nerve and stress to his tribe that a divided party is an unelectable party. This is a lesson that Ed M should have learnt first hand with his ‘front row seat’ for the Blair-Brown show.
So far Ed has done well to keep the party united and on course. Modest if not spectacular gains in the locals elections only a year after our second worst result since 1918 are testament to this fact. There are bound to be plenty more tests of Ed M’s authority in the coming years, this is one of the facts of life when you beat the initial front-runner in a leadership election.
After party unity, comes the opposition policy review. The renewal of ideas that is supposed to propel you back into the arms of the waiting electorate. Cameron’s handling of this process was – initially – masterful. He announced a thorough review of all party policy which gave him the space and time to shape his agenda. What Cameron also did however, was make two or three grand gestures to define his direction as being distinct from that of his predecessors. “Hug a hoodie” and “hug a husky” signalled that social justice and the environment were firmly on the Tory agenda. Internally, removing the Tories from the European People’s Party was a nod to his Eurosceptic right wing, placating them but in a way that didn’t jeopardise the public-facing detoxification strategy.
It was Cameron’s initial signals that gave him room to carry out the hard slog of substantive policy work. In doing so it allowed the Tories back into the national conversation and it told the public that the Tories were listening, communicating and that they had ideas. So on one hand Labour foot soldiers have to be patient as detailed policy work takes time and there are signs for optimism – we are starting to hear Ed’s voice. ‘The new inequality’, ‘the squeezed middle’, ‘the promise of Britain’. But on the other hand these could, and should, have appeared much earlier in the opposition cycle to have given Ed the space he really needs in order to allow the in-depth policy development to take place.
It should be noted that, despite giving himself the breathing room to develop policy, Cameron botched the conclusion to his great narrative. Proposals were floated and discarded, others were contradictory and it was never quite clear what review outcomes were Tory policy and which were just ideas. Rarely were slogans matched with clear commitments. When they were, such as the inheritance tax cut, they were wildly popular, but all too often they were forgotten. This left a hole at the heart of Team Cameron, who this week are desperately trying to fill the vacuum by launching the Big Society for a 4th time.
Cameron took a massive gamble when he promised to match Brown’s spending plans as a way to shed the (accurate) perception of the Tories as a party who like to slash spending and undermine public services as well as infrastructure.
The ‘Labour investment vs Tory cuts’ line had hung around Tory Press HQ necks for years after 1997. Public acceptance of this line had allowed Labour to deliver three decisive general election victories. The financial crisis changed everything, including Tory strategy. In light of the crash, Gideon ‘George’ Osborne pushed for a return to the Thatcherite strategy of painting Labour as economically incompetent spendthrifts. The sheer cynicism was astonishing given that the public were present and aware of the need to bail out the banks in order to prevent complete global financial meltdown. Furthermore, the Tories had actually pressed for less regulation of the banking sector in the years prior to the crash.
The change in policy got the Tories over the finishing line, and you could argue that it was the only option available to them at the time. But strategic attempts to shed the Tory cuts image and then the subsequent u-turn affirmed the electorate’s deeply held suspicions that, although they didn’t like Labour, the Tory party couldn’t be trusted either. As a result 15% poll leads shrunk to just 6% and election day didn’t deliver a clear majority for Cameron. After five years as opposition leader, with an unpopular Prime Minster and a global recession an empty call for “change” still rang hollow when backed with a muddled policy agenda.
The lesson for Ed is clear. The current coalition programme of cuts, reduced government provision and lowered corporation tax would be the centrepieces of any Tory government. The Tories have a simpler approach to politics and as such, policy reviews are less painful. One of Miliband’s big challenges is that he’s looking to define something genuinely new. The next election, in order to be won, has to be fought on territory with a Labour Party which offers something substantively different to what was on offer in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010, but this offer must be clear and tangible. A muddled agenda and a message that we’re not the Tories will lead to a result as inconclusive as 2010.
So growing into your role as leader, signalling the new policy directions and keeping the party together are not jobs to be ignored. But Ed’s real strength could lie in the longer-term strategy that he is playing. A public retelling of the New Labour agenda would have left the current Labour leader in a position similar to that of Wilson in 1964. Labour’s message today has strong foundations. Opposition to the cuts which are too far and too fast. A desire to defend the promise of Britain. All this against a backdrop of renewal, internal party reform and a programme of listening to the public. Ed’s luxury is that now, far from running out, he still has plenty of things to say. With more cuts ahead, the public may soon be willing to listen.