Can Johnson raise the Tories’ game above Easy mode? Can Labour force him to?

Can Johnson raise the Tories’ game above Easy mode? Can Labour force him to?

Governments with no effective opposition become arrogant and complacent

Why did the Lib Dems choose the Tories over Labour after the inconclusive 2010 general election? Although only a decade ago, it could as well have been a lifetime given how much has changed since – and in the last five years in particular. But that change makes the question all the more pertinent.

The numbers were a big part of it, of course. The Tories could promise a stable government with a majority of around 80: enough to last five years and deliver a joint programme, even with rebellions and awkward MPs. Labour, by contrast, could not offer a majority at all and would have been reliant on the whims and demands of smaller parties – and of any of their own MPs who fancied playing hard – every vote.

But what really made the difference can be summed up as collegiality: a desire to make a coalition work. Part of that was simply that the personalities chimed – Cameron and Osborne got on well with and worked easily with Clegg, Alexander and Laws, for example – but that was far from the whole story. The Tories had put real effort into working up their own plan for government, thinking about what the Lib Dems would want and how best to attract them, and also how the mechanics of a coalition would work. And Labour, after 13 years in government with comfortable (initially, landslide) majorities, hadn’t.

It was, in many ways, a classic example of what happens to long-serving governments. Office might not be seen as a right, it might not even be seen as an expectation but it becomes, at a subconscious level at least, the state of normality – a normality it is difficult to psychologically adjust from.

By contrast, major parties that have suffered a long period of opposition eventually find a hunger that leads them to ask the searching questions that their rivals in government have stopped asking of themselves. What do we need to change in order to be relevant? Policies? Practices? Personnel? PR? And by asking those questions with the humility that repeated defeats has drummed into them, they become both an effective opposition and a government-in-waiting.

Meanwhile, repeated victories breed complacency, infighting and internal jockeying, a failure to modernise methods that worked in the past, and a degree of contempt for other parties. Each case is of course different but the broad pattern is the same. (Nor is it just Westminster: the same dynamics will tend to apply in all countries with similar political systems, or in lower-level administrations within the UK. But they can be for future articles).

Those days are long past. The Tories are two leaders and three election wins down the line from the Coalition. Brexit has changed the whole nature of the Conservative Party. Its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been at best patchy. If the issues facing the country weren’t so serious, it would be simple to accuse the government of still playing politics on easy mode. So why aren’t the normal rules applying?

To which the answer is: luck and bad judgement. You don’t entirely make your own luck but you can influence it – and the Tories did. Rather ironically, given the Johnson government’s fiscal policies even before the pandemic, the crucial turning point was winning the public argument on austerity, as ultimately demonstrated in the 2015 election. Doing so discredited Labour’s centrists in the eyes of their members, who came to the conclusion that the party had accepted too much of the Tories’ analysis, and elected Jeremy Corbyn.

Consequently, while the Tories are displaying many of the symptoms of being a late-term government (as, after four election wins, they are), Labour hasn’t got anywhere near so far down the track as Cameron was in 2006 or Smith and then Blair were in the 1990s. Having spent the last five years indulging in feel-good politics, Starmer has a major task on sorting out the mess the previous regime left, never mind creating a battle-ready political machine staffed with officials who understand campaigning in the 2020s and a front bench able to lead the fight.

One small example gives a good illustration of the problem. This week, the Chancellor gave a mini-Budget to try to address gaps in his previous support packages and to develop further that policy as the country opens up again. This was Labour’s main social media message in response:

”It’s important to support business, but meal deal vouchers don’t substitute for effective public health messaging and measures”.

That reads like it’s been put together by a team on work experience. It would be possible to write a whole article on what’s wrong with it but here are five points to be going on with: (1) it mixes subjects confusingly; (2) at eighteen words, it’s much too long; (3) more than half the words are multisyllabic, which again is far too high a proportion; (4) the least confusing part of the statement is actually giving support to the government; (5) ‘effective public health messaging and measures’ might well be the most boring aspiration ever committed to pixels. And that’s without even looking at the artwork (single colour block capitals). The net result is that few will have read it, fewer still will have understood it, and hardly anyone will remember it.

A good opposition would have worked out their attack line in advance, teed it up in the morning and then hit it home in the afternoon – and that line would have tied into to one or more of at most three long-term narratives to bash the government with. However, as yet, Labour has neither the professional staff to deliver the materials for such an attack, nor the personnel to use them effectively.

In truth, the problems start at the top. Starmer is a much more natural Prime Minister than Leader of the Opposition (whereas Johnson is naturally a LotO) but Anneliese Dodds has barely made a mark as Shadow Chancellor, either in the House or on the media. Sunak is a tougher opponent than Johnson but even so, Marcus Rashford and an actors’ campaign have both forced more out of the government than the Opposition has. They’ve also demonstrated that the government is relatively easy to push about if you can apply the right pressure.

Once a government develops a habit of entitlement and complacency, they make mistakes. More, once they get into those habits, it is very hard to get out of them because the governments with that mindset cannot be objectively self-critical. Whether the Opposition is sufficiently adept to use the government’s mistakes to hold it to account – and to establish in the public mind that they’re both ready and needed to form a different government – is another matter. Current polling says Labour as a whole is a long way from that, and while it is, that enables the government to continue to operate on Easy mode.

David Herdson

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