The story of UK politics in 2012 is in essence a simple one. David Cameron managed to stoke up doubt in his leadership. Ed Miliband convinced people – both in his own party and beyond – that he was worth considering as a potential Prime Minister. The hard work continues and intensifies in 2013.
David Cameron begins the year surrounded by the wreckage of three failed political projects. The big society – an alternative model of providing collective goods to the ‘big state’ – lies discarded. It turns out that the big society is rather dependent on the state after all.
His modernisation project is now simply about equal marriage. That is a worthy endeavour in itself but it represents a grand political project abandoned. Tory modernisation from 2005 onwards proved to be rather like Labour’s cosmetic modernisation from 1985-87 – superficial and, therefore, unconvincing. The party is still out of step with less well off, BME, northern and young voters. Without making inroads in some of these demographics – if not all – there will be no end to the Tories’ 20 years and counting without winning an overall majority.
Finally, and less noted, there is Cameron’s failure to triangulate himself above the fissures within his party on the EU. The third consecutive Conservative Prime Minister is consumed by the UK’s relationship with the EU. In 2013, Cameron is likely to promise an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU following what will be a failed and cosmetic renegotiation. It is likely that this referendum will be after the election – it is very risky to hold it simultaneously as his party’s divides will be exposed for all to see. For Harold Wilson a vote in favour of membership removed the EEC from his political in-tray. One has to suspect that it is the opposite for Cameron – only a vote to leave will save the Conservative Party from tearing itself apart slowly.
Cameron is left with a single agenda – the ‘Singapore’ project. This is actually his Chancellor’s project. It means turning the UK into a deregulated, smaller state nation. We will be an open nation when it comes to trade and investment but relatively closed when it comes to immigration – unlike Singapore. London would thrive as a global financial centre and playground for the rich. What’s in it for the rest of the UK isn’t entirely clear – very little in all likelihood.
This nationalist liberalism is unlikely to have strong appeal with the demographics that Cameron has to win over in order to secure a majority in 2015. A harsh tone on the EU, immigration and a modest recovery might rebuild the Tories’ 2010 support. Any more than that requires quite a spectacular spurt of economic growth – unlikely. If Cameron has an even worse year in 2013 then serious questions will be raised about whether he is the man to lead the Conservatives into the next election. He seems to have the knack of assiduously creating more enemies than most people who survive in leadership for any period of time.
Miliband will confront nationalist liberalism with his one nation theme. It is a theme rather than a project currently. 2011 was largely a lost year for Labour. In 2012, some of the lost ground was covered. The very fact of coalition enabled Labour to close much of the gap that had emerged pre-2010 as terror in Liberal Democrat-land led to a diaspora of refugees. The question is how Labour can turn 35% into 40%.
Issue positioning will be insufficient. To follow the Tories’ tough rhetoric on welfare would neither be credible nor would it convince. The one nation theme would be trashed in an instant. A set of policies aimed at emphasising reciprocity in the system is more solid – and Liam Byrne has been reaching towards just that as he re-emphasises the Beveridgean principles of the system. On immigration, if Labour follows the Tories on the cap or even tries to better it, what it gains in one direction would be lost in another. Besides, it’s bad policy and presumably Labour will want to govern effectively post-2015.
Instead, Miliband has three tasks. Firstly, he has to convince people that a vote for Labour does not mean choosing between security and hope. Labour only wins when it convinces people that hope does not mean undue risk. More than any other opposition, this one – with the baggage of its final years in Government – will have to spell out how it will return the country to economic health and get Government finances back in order.
Levels of tax and spend will have to be outlined. Where Coalition policies are opposed, alternatives will have to be defined in the context of this overall plan. The whole thing will have to be independently verified. If Labour is evasive and unclear then hope and security will start to bump into one another. The clever centre-left response is to give people a choice between Labour’s ‘all in this together’ path to recovery and the Coalition’s favours for a wealthy minority. The alternative framing – Coalition responsibility and Labour largesse – means that Labour will blow it in 2015. New universal services such as in social care or child care will have to be fully funded out of fees, charges and new taxation – just as the welfare state and the NHS were when they were established.
Secondly, Miliband will need to turn the one nation theme into a political project. New Labour was about building a new nation out of the tired old Tory nation. One nation is rather different; it is about reflecting British values. Part of the political project is about being in tune with the spirit of the times. 1997 was about rebirth. We are more sceptical now but don’t confuse anxiety with despair. Practical and honest is the order of the day. Be honest about limits but optimistic about possibilities too. Practical means investment: in people, in homes, in new financial institutions that enable growth, and in better infrastructure. All this can take place with minimal impact on the structural current deficit. So one nation can provide both hope and responsibility.
Finally, Miliband has been granted an opening but still has to convince further as a potential Prime Minister. Too much is made of this at this stage but there is still a ‘getting to know you’ process that must be undertaken. He performs well under pressure and in the more intimate Town Hall-style question and answer sessions.
Labour’s front bench as a whole needs to learn how to behave with greater gravitas during PMQs and other set-piece parliamentary occasions – leave it to Cameron to lose his rag. For Miliband, it will be essential to project himself in a calmer, more measured fashion this year. People are searching for leadership in crisis – that requires a certain demeanour and calmness of disposition. Tactical games are the political currency of Parliament. Few watch or care and when they do they are generally disdainful. Statesmen rise above this: watch how Barack Obama handles himself for a clue.
2012 has seen a political rebalancing rather than transformation. David Cameron has become a hostage to events rather than master of them mainly thanks to a series of unforced errors. Ed Miliband has become a serious contender while retaining many of the political handicaps that were present at the end of 2011. A fragmented, anxious, and mistrustful electorate look on. The election won’t be decided in 2013. This time next year though, one of these men may have found a convincing voice. At that point a possible majority may move into reach.