by David Talbot
Dark warnings permeated throughout Westminster last week that the chancellor had been put on final notice. Osborne, it was said, had been politely but firmly informed that restless Conservative MPs had earmarked his fourth budget as the last opportunity to restore economic and political credibility before the countdown to the general election in 2015. In marked contrast to last year, the chancellor and his team imposed tight discipline on his preparations to ensure none of the headlines contained a variant of the word “shambles.”
To that end, the chancellor can be relatively pleased. In the run up to the budget he had made, and had deliberately been seen to be making, a concerted effort to court long-neglected Conservative MPs. The frequency with which Osborne systematically name-checked colleagues in marginal seats, who had miraculously succeeded in planting their pet projects into the budget, would suggest a chancellor who, firstly, knows he is unpopular and secondly, who rightly recognises that the government is dangerously listless.
The “aspiration nation” is the Conservative response to Ed Miliband’s much-heralded “one nation” Labour party. It’s difficult to envisage a way in which you could abuse the English language more efficiently, but clearly the Conservative elders are pleased with their effort. For they desperately need something – even a slogan – to inject impetus into a moribund government that is fighting itself, rather than for the country.
The catalogue of errors that are now strewn across the government’s record is now so damaging it threatens the basic concept of governance. Cameron capitulated over Leveson, despite having established the inquiry. Under pressure last year at PMQs he announced the government will force energy companies to provide cheaper tariffs, with no idea how. In 2010 he came into government promising no top-down reorganisation of the NHS and has embarked on precisely that. He emptily vetoed the EU budget last December, and under pressure from UKIP promised a referendum – raising the prospect that the UK might leave the EU, a prospect he is on record as saying he does not want to happen.
The biggest beneficiary of all this buffoonery has been Labour. But the strong national polling figures mask the poor intellectual shape the party is in. As the Eastleigh by-election proved, where the party added a dismal 0.2% to its already bad 2010 total, the warning signs for Labour are there.
“One nation” may have played well to the media and the party faithful, but its lack of policy grit is beginning to hurt.
We are told, and were told some 46 times during the Labour leader’s conference speech, that Britain under Labour will be “one nation,” which is nice. However, it does not resonate with any key, immediate, issues and it certainly is not yet a coherent ideology. Buried in a recent article from the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr was an anonymous quote from the ubiquitous “senior Labour strategist” so commonly cited in all of these pieces:
“Miliband, his advisers say, is redefining social democracy for the 21st century. ‘To establish that agenda takes time,’ a senior Labour strategist tells me. “
Well, that is positively alarming. If the Labour party were an undergraduate then yes, by all means take years to formulate a new ideology. Take as long as you want, frankly. But people need answers to today’s problems now, not abstract policy pamphlets read by, oh, dozens in 2015.
What will prove the “one nation” mantle is whether it can last all the way to the 2015 general election as a solution to all the nation’s ills. At the moment it is purely being used as a vehicle to show that Labour’s vision for Britain is not David Cameron’s, which should be obvious enough. According to the Labour leader it has variously been about preventing a lost decade, about rebuilding the nation’s economy, for tackling rogue bankers, for cheaper childcare and more housing, and sending more working class children to university. It may also include commitments to motherhood and apple pie – we simply don’t know.
What, for instance, will “one nation” spending cuts look like? Labour has neither the distinctive agenda nor the common-sense language to articulate that yet. For all their faults, the Conservatives can still play to the common parlance. Aspiration can be understood by all.
Nobody knows if Ed Miliband’s grand project will succeed. Labour’s task this year will be to focus on what a “one nation” Britain would actually entail. A willingness to engage voters in an honest conversation about the tough choices that lie ahead would be a good starting point. Spending years pontificating about “redefining social democracy” almost certainly is not.
David Talbot is a political consultant