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Thursday, April 03, 2014 

The right doesn't own the future.

As putting shotgun inside mouth and pulling the trigger inducing as it is to recognise, there's still over a year to go until the general election. Not that this matters much, as some are already convinced the Conservatives have it in the bag. John Harris, not usually a defeatist, talks of how history suggests as much as a 5 point deficit for the party has turned into a 7 point lead come election day. This ignores how no governing party has increased its share of the vote at the following election since 1974, as the Tories must if they want an overall majority. Lord Ashcroft certainly isn't convinced his party can do it, as his polls attest, while the sheer fact they will have failed to win a general election in 23 years by May 2015 has to count against them.

Harris's counsel of despair doesn't end there, oh no. The reason it feels like the Tories are on the up is they have come up with a solid vision of the future, whereas the left and by extension Labour are still fighting the battles of the past. We might not like their version of what's to come, where those who can cope with globalisation are divided from those who can't and rewarded accordingly, but it seems to be working.

This appears to me a classic example of someone over-analysing what is in fact a much simpler, and cruder move by the Tories.  They're not dividing people according to whether or not they're up to playing their in the "global race", it's rather that they're throwing a few scraps to those they believe share their values while concentrating most on those who do turn out to vote.  Hence the pensions and savings reforms and the promise to keep free TV licences and other perks, while the more apathetic young can look forward to being denied access to housing benefit until they turn 25.  Meanwhile, Russell Brand is telling the young not to vote as politicians are all the same, and plenty of commentators either nod sagely or call him a demagogue.  Such open bribery combined with the economic recovery ought to be translating into far better polling results for the Tories, and yet after the narrowing post-Budget, the gap to Labour seems to be opening up again.

Where Harris does have a point is in the left wanting to fight yesterday's battles again.  Talk of the spirit of 45 is rose-tinted romanticism of the highest order, but it is very much a minority pursuit.  Labour itself clearly isn't reaching for such nostalgia, nor is it even remotely likely that the party is going to promise the renationalising of the railways in the manifesto.  Looking back to a supposedly better past is hardly a solely left-wing thing though; the entire UKIP and traditional right-wing Tory view of where we're going wrong and what needs to change is refracted through the belief that the metropolitan elite has a stranglehold on power.  What's more, it's a powerful message, and not one that can be proved wrong with insults, as Nick Clegg found out last night.

Which is where Harris's analysis of why the Tories are in the ascendant falls down.  He says the left is failing to realise that the world of work has changed fundamentally, hasn't begun to adjust to the dawning of an ageing society, and doesn't know what to do about the overbearing state in an age where anyone with an opinion can make themselves heard.  On the first point Harris seems to be confusing the views of some on the right with that of the Tories themselves: if there's one politician who can be described as a work fetishist despite it being ever more apparent that work alone is not the way out of poverty, then surely Iain Duncan Smith fits the bill.  Moreover, it's the left that's long realised the impact of job insecurity and has urged the minimum wage to become a living wage.  This territory has since been grasped somewhat by the right, but when they are so supportive of zero hour contracts and workfare it's impossible not to see through it, as was George Osborne's laughable promise of full employment.  Ed Miliband's emphasis on the cost of living hasn't focused in on pay as much as it could have done, yet you can't argue it hasn't had an impact.

Harris is on surer ground on ageing, where as yet no party has got a firm grasp.  He says self-sustaining social networks will be vital and says government won't be a part of it, to which the only response seems to be to say: when was it?  As for the state itself, Harris is betting that the right's answer of cutting back and urging the third sector to move in is sustainable.  As yet few have noticed services getting worse; the crunch is still to come, as Rick has continued to set out.  Nor do we know how the party that wins the next election will aim to close the still yawning deficit, as Osborne's slashing of the non-protected government departments simply doesn't look achievable.

At heart, Harris is right.  Few parties have ever won power without offering a positive vision of where they intend to take the country, and the left and Labour certainly don't at the moment have a coherent one.  Ed Miliband has tried to sketch out what One Nation under Labour would look like, and frankly hasn't got very far.  Neither though have the Tories worked out what they want; they know what they don't want, but when it comes to promoting themselves and the country at large they fail miserably.  Are we hard-working or simply going through the motions?  Does anyone believe a word of the global race nonsense, and not instead see it as being about a race to the bottom?  The electorate could well end up favouring the Tories, certainly.  They won't however do so because the right has the won the arguments, but as they're the incumbents and look vaguely more competent.  On such matters are elections won or lost, not on the role of the state.

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