In August 1914, at the outbreak of the first world war, many famously thought that the war would be ‘over by christmas’. As Labour MPs and party members return from summer holidays, there are those who believe that, perhaps in hope rather than expectation, the Tory-Lib Dem government will implode sooner rather than later. As the government marks its first 100 days in office, there are few signs that the coalition will fall apart quickly.
Whoever wins the Labour leadership will need to observe our opponents through the correct end of the telescope. The Conservatives may not have won the last election, but they will be far more formidable opponents at the next one. A major part of the Labour election campaign was to highlight the ‘risk’ posed by the Tories, as a way of rebutting the ‘year of change’ message put forward by David Cameron. To some extent, this was successful. The Conservative brand was still toxic in some sections of the electorate and many people were nervous about Cameron. Focus groups would quote the ‘hug a hoodie’ speech, would reference the ‘cycling to work with the chauffeur-driven car following with the suit and briefcase’ incident and would respond to the question ‘what would David Cameron be if he wasn’t a politician?’ by likening him to a dodgy second-hand car dealer.
But the formation of the Tory-Lib Dem government has changed that. Lib Dem support gives them more than the parliamentary arithmetic to get over the line and form a working majority. Crucially, it gives them the benefits of incumbency. Cameron looks the part. He is confident (not all of which can be attributed to his expensive education). His statement on the Saville inquiry showed sensitivity and an adeptness that is formidable. One Labour-leaning business leader who was part of the UK’s delegation on the Prime Minister’s recent trade visit to India, remarked that Cameron was personable, engaging and impressive. Cameron’s visit to the United States, despite the US Administration’s huge misgivings in private about Cameron and the Conservatives prior to the election, was always going to result in a decent photo of Obama and Cameron, with predictable reports that the meeting was ‘warm’ and ‘showed a close and strong relationship’ (despite, presumably, the fact that their economic policies are diametrically opposed).
I suspect that the electorate, at least at this stage before the cuts really bite, are attracted to the notion of people coming together, putting party differences to one side, to govern ‘in the national interest for the good of the country’. What Cameron and Clegg call the new politics looks, well, new. Lib Dems are ‘detoxifying’ the Conservative brand for them. The most regressive budget of modern times was portrayed as ‘fair’ and ‘progressive’. The salad may be bitter and past its sell by date, but the Lib Dems provide the dressing.
In fact, the Tories are playing the Lib Dems like an orchestra. Osborne delivers his reactionary and appalling budget, but who is the muppet that reads out the list of cuts? Step forward, Danny Alexander. The Conservatives have always believed in a sink or swim approach to the economy, but who is the guy that is abandoning British industry in announcement after announcement? One pace forward, Vince Cable. I don’t believe the cuts and austerity drive have reached the comfortable residents of David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency, but it is Nick Clegg who has to shamefully arrive by the back door to visit Sheffield forgemasters in his own city.
And apart from the tactical ineptitude of the Lib Dem leadership, the Tories are using incumbency to maximum effect by changing the rules of the game – something Labour failed to do to our advantage. When Parliament returns in September, first on the agenda are the proposals for fixed term parliaments and boundary changes.
The Tories have also sold the rights to their DCMS policy to News International, which should keep that section of the media sweet for a few years.
Locally too, incumbency counts. Despite the heroic efforts of our candidates which meant that we only lost the likes of Sherwood by a handful of votes, the Tories will now be ploughing money and resources into defending such seats. The places where Labour was able to weather the storm were in constituencies where the sitting MPs had worked them hard for years – in places like Dudley or Edgbaston. The Conservatives will be doing the same now with their new MPs, so we need to select our candidates early in the marginal seats.
The government is also setting the context. They Tories are re-writing recent history by claiming they have to act to ‘sort out the mess bequeathed to them by Labour’ in the shape of the deficit. We have to start standing up for our record before the Conservative propaganda gains even more traction with voters.
Despite the grumblings that we will see at the Lib Dem conference this year, and the occasional shot across the bow issued by their deputy leader Simon Hughes in the media, the next election is more than likely some years away. There are a myriad of different possible outcomes for Labour. For Labour’s new leader, there are challenges and opportunities. We will need to learn lessons from our electoral defeat, but be aware that the next election will be fought on the basis of who is best for Britain in 2015, not 2010.
First, Labour will need a strong, credible, but alternative economic policy. We cannot be labelled as deficit deniers, but neither should we dance along to the Tory tune that eliminating all government debt as quickly as possible is the only thing that matters, and that public spending cuts – rather than fair taxes, and policies for jobs and growth – are the only means of delivering this. The poll showing a government lead in terms of who is most trusted on the economy should set alarm bells ringing.
The government’s proposals to restructure the NHS gives Labour a real platform to show that the Conservatives remain unchanged – still their great weakness with the electorate – in being fundamentally hostile to the idea of a ‘national’ health service. Equally we need to expose their policies on employment as not being about new politics but old economics, policies that are more akin to the failed, right wing Tory governments of the past.
There may be surprising opportunities too for Labour. If the government uses the defence review to reduce army manning levels, or to cut the number of helicopters at a time when our forces are engaged in Afghanistan, then Labour should unleash a furious effort to expose this. Our response to Michael Gove’s building schools for the future fiasco shows us what can be achieved by relentless parliamentary scrutiny and campaigning.
As parliament returns, we need to remember the tactics of the famous boxer Rocky Marciano. John Spellar, one of the generals in the Labour whips office, tells how Marciano would pound the arms of his opponent in the early rounds of a fight. Not because he would score points, but because he would weaken and wear down his opponent, ready for a subsequent knock-out blow.
Equally, to return to the first world war analogy, when the two armies were sat opposite each other during the long periods in between grand offensives on the western front, both sides used trench raids. This was not merely a tactic designed to gather intelligence by capturing the odd enemy prisoner. Raids were designed to expose weaknesses in the enemy’s line, to cause carnage and instability in their ranks and to wear the enemy down.
When the next election comes, we will not be able to portray the Conservatives as being a risk. Nor can we just attack the Lib Dems for betraying their manifesto, or the Tories for their cuts to public services. Elections are all about the future. Labour’s new leader will have to hit the ground running in challenging the Tory-Lib Dem government, but he or she can afford to take some time to get our forward offer right.
A hundred days in, it is clear that the Conservatives are playing it long. They hope that economic recovery and tax-cuts, rather like the arrival of the Americans for the allies on the western front, will prove decisive in a 2015 election. The government is digging in for a long campaign. Labour should too.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East.