Wouldn’t it be great to have Lord Tebbit back in the Cabinet? Gone are the days when a Conservative minister could, with a straight face, recommend his father’s attitude to unemployment with the words, “He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.” Or so we thought until William Hague stepped up to the plate and stated that “There’s only one growth strategy: work harder.”
Much has been made of the similarities between these two men and their respective statements. Zoe Williams has pointed out that “Hague, like Tebbit before him, has a “striver’s” authenticity: “I slogged my way out of poverty, you can too.”” By focusing on these similarities and relying on the invocation of the infamous Lord Tebbit, this momentary gaffe will be forgotten by the next election. However, this episode says something deeper about our politics and, in particular, this government. It should be a wake up call for Labour Party members to get on our bikes and work harder.
There are three aspects of Tebbit’s statement that have given it that enduring legacy simultaneously hoped for and feared by politicians. Firstly, it was outdated. Tebbit was suggesting a 1930s solution to a 1980s problem. There was a, typically Conservative, denial of the way in which society had changed in half a century. Secondly, it was deeply flawed. The arguments need not be rehearsed here but if there is one thing that every member of the Labour Party should be able to agree on, it is that ‘get on your bike’ is not an adequate government approach to the problem of unemployment. Finally, it was said with integrity.
No matter how much you disagree with the Thatcher Project, it is impossible to deny that it was passionately believed in and enacted with real determination and zeal. Thatcher herself is notorious for having hardly slept whilst in Downing Street. Tebbit represented a hard working government.
Compare this with William Hague. What have his Cabinet colleagues been doing this week? Let’s take the Champions League Final as an example. George Osborne enjoyed the game from the VIP seats in Munich whilst the British economy is in a double-dip recession. David Cameron was photographed taking a break from trying to save the Eurozone with other G8 leaders, to watch the match. All of this is taking place at the end of a week in which Elliot and Hanning’s new biography of David Cameron reveals a work-life balance more akin to a part-time consultant than the prime minister of a country in dire economic straits.
There are obvious resonances between Hague’s comments and those of Lord Tebbit. The most obvious similarity being that they are both wrong. They both reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of unemployment, its causes and solutions. Hague has, however, managed to avoid the trap of being outdated. When asked about the comparison with Lord Tebbit, he replied, “It’s more than that. It’s ‘Get on the plane, go and sell things overseas. Go and study overseas’. It’s much more than getting on the bike, the bike didn’t go that far.” How very twenty-first century.
The important difference between the two is that Hague and his government lack any credibility on the issue of hard graft. There are certainly hard-working members of the government, but nothing we have heard recently suggests that it is being led by individuals committed to living by their own advice and working unceasingly in pursuit of economic growth.
Those who swallowed the government’s message that fiscal responsibility means austerity and austerity means growth, will not be convinced to vote Labour on the basis of Hague’s gaffe. Those who wish to reject the worst excesses of austerity know that the Labour Party is the only viable option. The recent local election results showed as much. The Coalition parties were rejected, so the Labour Party gained. But, as has been said by so many, it didn’t show the electorate embracing Labour. The apathetic and uninspired middle are left cold and disillusioned by the whole process.
The temptation is to recast the Tories as the Nasty Party; but this is not a call to mud-slinging arms. Politicians of all stripes are seen as being out of touch and lacking integrity. It is a base form of politics that relies only on the opponent being worse. Ed Miliband was spot on when he said at the Progress Annual Conference that “we should knock not just on the doors of people we already know vote Labour, but also on people we haven’t contacted for years.” The Labour Party must listen carefully and translate those conversations into a party ethic and a policy platform that is in touch and has integrity. Most importantly we must demonstrate that the Labour Party embodies, rather than merely preaches, the values – including hard work – which should be the bedrock of our country and our economy. This is no small task but, if we manage it, this will be a one term government and it’ll be Hague getting on his bike.