Miliband’s One Nation or Cameron’s national liberalism – which will win out in 2013?

January 2, 2013 10:54 am

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.

  • Amber_Star

    Okay, this is off-topic but I hope somebody in Labour’s team reads this.
    IDS is saying that benefits have risen in value faster than wages.
    Labour is countering by saying this isn’t true.
    People don’t care; they think politicians lie anyway so catching IDS lying won’t win the debate.
    Labour should be saying that it’s precisely because wages haven’t been rising that working people need their credits to rise faster than wages. If their wage rises aren’t covering the cost of living rises which we’ve endured under this government then people need higher benefits to cover the gap!

    • telemachus

      Agree
      And this gets us back to the growth and prosperity argument.
      If we do not invest for growth we not only do not pay down the deficit but we deny prosperity.
      We are back to Ed Balls Build for Growth.
      We need to shout this from the rooftops.
      (And on Today and Newsnight)

      • AlanGiles

        Sadly however, Labour or at least Liam Would-be Mayor of Birmingham, was STILL on the World At One Today making a division between low-waged workers (“Strivers” in Byrne-speak, getting as hackyned and banal a term as “one nation”) and the unemployed. As the presenter pointed out, however, somebody unemployed might well be STRIVING to find work, and there are people who ARE working, but shirking at work – a very cogent point lost on both Liam Byrne and Grant Schapps (“Mr. Green”).

        This just reeks once again of the old New Labourites wanting to have their cake and eat it. Divide and rule.

        • Alexwilliamz

          Some of these people no doubt supported by an army of strategist quivering at the slightest reaction from twitter need a good long talking to. If welfare is there to keep people above a minimum then if the cost of living goes up then so does welfare at the same rate. The fact wages have not kept up with cost of living means 1) that more people will come to need welfare to maintain a basic standard of living and 2) Tory policy has done nothing to help those in work either other than to further impoverish them. The response should be over and over again on this issue; Why are those at the bottom having to pay for this government’s failure. If this government wanted to genuinely cut the welfare bill then they would do more to get everyone back in work and surely part of that would be to make sure wages were sufficiently rewarding! If ‘hard working’ people are looking on benefit recipients with envy or anger then the real issue must be why are we not rewarding hard work better?

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      What you propose is simply to increase welfare payments to offset a lack of increase in wages, and to make up the inflation gap. But this is a very inefficient use of Government money.

      The annual welfare bill is about £115 billion, per head of population about £1,850. Assuming inflation at 3%, next year it sh(w)ould be about £1,910 per head.

      A person earning even the little amount of £15,000 would expect normally an inflation pay rise of £450 from their employer (at 3% inflation). Therefore to use welfare payments to “make good” a lack of any employer-funded pay rise, you would need to increase their welfare payments by £510. That is a 24% rise in welfare for a £15,000 worker, and indeed a 39% rise in welfare payments for a median national income worker also denied a pay rise by her or his employer. It is an example of gearing.

      So the welfare payments budget rises from £115 billion to nearly £160 billion, an increase in budget of around £45 billion. Of course, this would have to be funded by borrowed money, taking the cost of your proposal to about £62 billion if funded over 10 years. That is £62 billion for this year, nearly £64 billion for next year, and nearly £66 billion for the year after, assuming this recession will last for another 3 years. A total of over £190 billion in extra welfare payments, all for very little return. This is the possible cost of your proposal. Did you realise that? It is fair if you do, and still think it a good idea, but you have to also publicise the cost as well as the idea.

      Equally, you could choose to fund your proposal by raising taxes. A £45 billion cost would be “about” £1,000 per income tax payer, There are not enough rich people to fund this without hitting the lower paid, leaving aside the ridiculous notion of people paying more in tax to then receive less in welfare payments to make up for their loss and to counter inflation, to say nothing of the greatly increased costs of tax collection.

      That same £45 billion could – I believe – be focussed on capital projects that not only create employment, but will also have a “return” on investment.

      So, we have a choice. For the same nominal £45 billion (annually), would you prefer to see £4.5 billion invested in each of the regions, increasing employment and letting employers bid for contracts and grow, or divide it among each head of population, and know that only a proportion of that money will stay in the UK after people have enjoyed spending the extra money on anything and everything?

      (I do not mean to be stark. There is both a moral and mathematical case for increasing welfare payments to the poorest)

      (EDIT: and so I agree with Alex Williamz’ comment above – the focus should be on employers to pay inflation increases, the living wage and other proper costs of employment, and to stimulate growth by cutting corporate taxes so that employers balance sheets do not suffer)

  • nkn_uk

    Trying to distinguish between David Cameron’s Tories and Ed
    Miliband’s Labour party is pretty much the difference between two different
    coloured pieces of chalk. And now that the Liberal Democrats have joined the
    right of centre exodus there is no cheese in the equation at all. David Cameron
    is a crap Prime Minister, the worst I’ve ever known. Who would have thought
    that we would be looking back on the halcyon days of Gordon Brown, who would
    have thought that anybody could be as truly dreadful as him? But Ed Miliband is
    an equally dreadful leader of the opposition. If he ends up as PM it will be by
    default and certainly not through any charisma, character or aptitude.

  • Alexwilliamz

    In agreement with much of what you say here Anthony.

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