What can Labour learn from Cameron’s mistakes?

It’s easy to miss what’s right in front of your nose. Labour continues to look for guidance about how to be a successful opposition, and put itself in a position to be an effective government after the next election. But some of the best lessons are sitting not two swords-widths in front of our own front bench.

In Conservative circles, how far David Cameron went in copying Tony Blair’s path to electoral victory is a contested issue – although not as fiercely divisive about whether this contributed to, or detracted from, his success at the last election. But unlike New Labour, the Tories went from being a relatively successful opposition, to being barely-qualifying electoral victors, to gradually escalating catastrophe in government.

Clearly, Labour would do well do apply a ‘reverse Cameron’ strategy: to examine carefully the experiences of our opponents, identify their mistakes and take all steps necessary to avoid or mitigate them. Identifying and analysing Tory mistakes makes for a parlour game as lengthy as it is enjoyable for a certain species of political trainspotter; as a specimen of that species, I offer four examples of mistakes the Tories made in opposition, and are making in government, which Labour should take as object lessons.

Don’t confuse attack with strategy. The Tories had not been uniformly unsuccessful before the financial crisis, but their wins had been spread painfully thinly across the years. What the Conservatives had appeared to lack since the demise of Thatcher was a sense of mission. The financial crisis changed this: by 2009 deficit reduction had been co-opted as the raison d’être of the Conservative party. For a centre-right party seeking to score points off a social democratic government dealing with a rising fiscal deficit, it was certainly a good card to play – you don’t have to be a PR professional to write the headlines. But the zeal with which the Tories pursued this line (and, lest we forget, they had backed Labour’s spending plans from 1997 right until the 2008 budget) revealed that this was more than a line – the Conservative party got high on its own product, cheerfully placing itself in a political straightjacket which has bound its thinking ever since. A cannier opposition would have found the flexibility to make the attacks, whilst leaving itself a freer hand to pursue a fiscal strategy which balanced deficit reduction and growth. Labour’s lesson is to ensure that our attacks on the Tories are not merely knee-jerk contrarianism, but are based on a broader strategy which is both grounded in reality; they should also be sufficiently flexible to respond to the changing challenges of government, rather than semi-religious claims for our supporters.

Beware old orthodoxies. I have written before about how, when backed into a corner, political parties look to their old favourites to get themselves out of a fix. For the Tories – with growth stubbornly absent, their fiscal policy failing to have any impact on either economic performance or borrowing, and the public threatening to remove the benefit of the doubt it had given the coalition in 2010 – old friends like deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy and attacks on welfare suggested themselves. These policies, though, were recommended more by the level of comfort they gave to the Conservative faithful than by the objective good they would do for Britain. It’s easy to scoff, but we all have voices we are keener to hear, blind-spots about ideas which never quite died, and hobby horses we’d like to ride one last time. Labour’s challenge is to avoid this temptation: to adopt an attitude which is rigorous in its assessment of problems, ascetic in its accommodation of woolly ideas, and sceptical of wheezes which claim to sweep away Britain’s problems with a dollop of hope and socialism. The economic problems Britain faces are without precedent in their scale or their nature – no dusty manifesto contains a recipe for solving them.

The voters you ignore don’t go away. When planning their time in government before 2010, Conservative strategists don’t appear to have accounted for the scale of opposition to some of their policies, such as the tide of protest at their NHS reorganisation plan. Naturally, the focus of plans for an election campaign is increasingly on the groups of voters who are persuadable and whom a party needs to form a majority; but a party aiming to govern effectively has to know that the voters who don’t make it onto their election victory spreadsheet don’t cease to exist. Quite apart from the fact that Labour has to decide whether it wants voters who chose David Cameron over Gordon Brown in 2010 back, or not – an issue I have discussed previously – a party which dismisses those who don’t vote for it stores up problems. Implementing changes often means losers as well as winners, and the interests of those who lose out cannot be given a lower weighting if they happen to have voted for someone else. Labour’s lesson should be to learn how to relate to, and communicate with, people who don’t vote for us: not only is this good practice for swing voters, but these voters will have to be acquiescent to, if not supportive of, our governing programme if it is to be successful and long lasting.

Voters want solutions, not critiques. From the start of the financial crisis to early 2010, the Tories were consistently ahead of Labour – often by 10 points or more. In February 2009 David Cameron’s party touched 48% in the polls, and led a wounded Gordon Brown by 20 points. Voters appeared to agree with his critique of the government: that it was tired, had spent unwisely, had some culpability for the recession, and that on some issues – such as welfare, immigration or Europe – was out of step with popular opinion. Closer to elections, though, the choice a voter faces becomes clearer: whatever the failings of an incumbent government, the opposition will come under scrutiny and must demonstrate that it is a viable alternative. Before 2010 David Cameron gave eloquent voice to a critique of the Brown government which found broad agreement – but he was not able to convert this into a convincing election win, largely because too many voters felt he failed to offer solutions which were effective, or with which they felt comfortable. Currently, Labour is winning the battle of the critiques – the public has turned against the government and increasingly agrees with our inventory of the government’s shortcomings. But this will not be enough to win an election: in 2015 voters will assess carefully whether Labour can offer them an approach which is an improvement on what they already have, whether the solutions to policy problems we propose are reasonable and seem workable, and whether they would be comfortable with trusting us to implement them.

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