The two-party architecture of Britain’s political system is disintegrating, as both Labour and the Conservatives struggle with the Ukip insurgency and an energised SNP in Scotland. The Conservatives were the first to lose their nerve and are on the verge of implosion. There is now an opportunity for Labour and its leader, Ed Miliband, to seize the initiative and secure a decisive advantage at next year’s election. But that would mean turning against the sort of small-minded, tactical political leadership that got both parties into this mess in the first place. So I will be surprised if it happens.
Last week I posted on how David Cameron’s Conservatives are moving beyond respectable politics in a bid to buy off defections to Ukip. They are making the fatal mistake of addressing the symptoms of their weakness, not its causes. This is as much because the leadership has lost control of the party as any misjudgement from the top. Not a day goes by without a Tory popping up on Radio 4 (my main source of daily news) proposing something that goes well beyond the boundaries of sensible political discourse. They are playing up ill-informed public opinions on immigration, the European Union, human rights and climate change. They advocate policies that will address these fears directly (controlling EU freedom of movement; repatriating powers from the EU or leaving it all together, and so on), but which are incapable of addressing the root causes of public anxiety. These are not sensible, workable policies, and this is becoming more and more obvious. The leadership is being dragged along in order to prevent a fatal break-up. The rise of Ukip is the proximate cause of this trouble – and yet its popularity simply rises as the Tories appease it, while Tory poll ratings languish. At some point the party’s more sensible components, which give the party the respectability it needs for credibility, will start to desert it. When that happens it is Game Over for the Conservatives as a serious contender for government.
Labour are better disciplined and its leader has held his nerve, if that is what to call it, for longer. Ed Miliband has made some rather silly left-wing noises – the craziest being to propose a freeze of energy prices that will interrupt, at best, badly needed investment in the country’s energy infrastructure. But this is far from the lurch to the left that some commentators portray. He does not launch into diatribes against failed “neoliberalism” or promise to reverse government’s austerity policies, except in a few token places. Extra taxes on the rich would once have been regarded as loony left, but they are now part of the sensible centre. The untapped wealth of the wealthy is draining the life out of developed world economies.
So far, so good. But this is not leadership; it is the party keeping its mouth shut. It has not properly engaged with the surge of populist discontent, that also includes support for Scottish independence. This lack of leadership has had its benefits. Many Labour politicians praise Mr Miliband for holding the party together at a time of challenge. But there are cracks. The party’s leader in Scotland, Johann Lamont, resigned last week, complaining that the party’s Westminster leadership had failed to understand the implications of Scotland’s referendum vote. This seems well-grounded. The political mood and landscape has changed decisively north of the border, following unprecedented political engagement in the referendum. And yet Mr Miliband’s response has been token at best; he simply resumed his underwhelming attack on the national coalition government as if nothing had changed. His only concession was to call for a constitutional convention – but in the manner of one who wants to bat such issues into the long grass, so that serious change can be sabotaged in the way Labour already has the reform of the electoral system, campaign finance and the House of Lords in this parliament.
But what the country now cries out for is proper leadership. This means tackling the populism and ignorance head on. Pointing out that public fears on immigration, the EU and human rights are misplaced, and that the obvious countermeasures will make things worse, not better. Instead the British government should press ahead with a programme of serious political reform (devolution and electoral reform) and economic investment (education and infrastructure), that will draw more people back into political engagement, and prepare the country better for the future. The Conservatives have irretrievably cut themselves off from leading such a programme. Labour has not.
Such a course would be brave. It would mean taking on the tabloid press, and the many conservatives in Labour’s own ranks, who oppose political reform, or serious reform of any sort. But the public can surely spot leadership when the see it. Labour should be inspired by Italy’s Matteo Renzi. He has adopted a bold programme of political and economic reform, upsetting many of his party’s traditional supporters, and he has reversed the anti-politician tide in Italy as a result.
Alas, instead Labour seems to be following France’s Francois Hollande. Mr Hollande secured a massive electoral victory in 2012. Labour’s strategists seem to want to follow the strategy that secured that victory – by playing on his opponents’ weakness. The centre-right was being fatally undermined by the populist right of Marine Le Pen. It was a victory by default. Mr Hollande offered various bones to his left-wing supporters, but no convincing programme to address France’s pressing problems.
Such a strategy might yet succeed for Labour. But it is a recipe for implosion once the party assumes government, as has indeed happened to Mr Hollande in France. Or it could fail, as the populist right eats into Labour’s own core vote.
It’s better to be brave. And it’s not too late for Mr Miliband to surprise us all.