Miliband has given Cameron a golden opportunity

Published in The Guardian (September 26th, 2013)

There is consensus on one thing about Ed Miliband’s party conference speech: he has made a significant lurch to the left. He is correct to do so, since the most effective politicians are those true to their own instincts selling a message they feel in their blood. Only time will tell if this turns out to be smart politics – and picking fights with energy giants is unlikely to lose votes – although it is clearly economics more suited to a student activist that further undermines his prime ministerial credibility.

The move opens up an intriguing possibility for the Conservatives. In recent months, their discipline may have tightened but their message has coarsened under pressure from excitable elements on the right and guidance from their imported election strategist. It has been stripped back to basics: bash burglars, slash benefits, cut taxes, send immigrants home. It is easy for opponents to caricature this as the return of the nasty party.

Now Miliband has presented David Cameron with a golden opportunity. Instead of drifting to the right and following a brutalist blueprint that proved dismally unappealing in the past, the prime minister should revive and update the compassionate conservatism that proved so popular in his early months as party leader. Not only is this the best way the Tories can overcome an electoral system stacked against them; it is also essential to secure a sustainable future.

Tory modernisation was only half-completed by the last election, knocked off course by the economic crisis. Since then the timidity of forward-facing members of the party allowed a rightwing narrative to emerge – that the big society wrecked Conservative hopes of a majority. In fact, evidence shows the plummet in the polls began when the party embraced austerity, underlining residual fears among moderate voters over their compassion for the poor and commitment to public services.

These doubts have been reinforced by some cackhanded moves in government, such as cutting the top rate of tax, the health reforms and the bedroom tax, while their coalition partners seem to have free reign to claim ownership of policies that might appeal to middle-ground voters. Conservatives promote marriage tax breaks; Liberal Democrats give away free school meals. Meanwhile, the Tories have silenced talk of an optimistic and transformative agenda to revive local communities, let along on tackling corporate abuse, for a message that sounds largely negative.

Miliband has failed to connect with the electorate and his team is haunted by its failures and foolish behaviour in office. Yet Labour has extended its lead to 14% in marginal seats. The harsh Tory tone has caused a collapse in support among female voters, the rock upon which Conservative postwar victories have been built, with Labour’s lead over the Tories at 13% among women – three times the average lead they poll with men. Meanwhile the party ignores ethnic minority voters – a growing electoral force – and lags behind with the young.

Some Tory votes have drained away to Ukip. Yet the disastrous Eastleigh byelection showed the folly of moving to the right. Voters seduced by their pub politics will support the real thing; chasing them just alienates people more concerned about the cost of living and decent public services that protect the poor. These are the voters of the future in a rapidly evolving world in which party politics is becoming more precarious and worship of the welfare state is dwindling.

The economy is stuttering back to better health. Perversely, this means voters might feel they can afford to take a chance on Labour again. Miliband has planted his red flag firmly on the left; now Cameron should respond by reclaiming the centre. If he fails to do so, he risks not only losing the next election but undermining the future of his party.

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