‘So often, Conservatives think that retail politics is just an auction of promises that we can never win’
What was Ed Miliband’s most successful moment as Labour leader?
It was during the 2013 Labour conference, when he announced the freeze on energy bills. Putting aside the economic merits or demerits of this, it was an electrifying moment, not quite comparable with Neil Kinnock’s anti-Militant speech of 1985 — “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers . . . you can’t play politics with people’s jobs” — but still a major agenda-setting event.
The importance of Miliband’s speech was not just that it mentioned high energy bills: it showed a general recognition of the financial struggles people were facing. The Labour leader signalled to the public: “We are on your side.” It suggested also that there were unfair practices from the larger energy companies, all of which people felt to be true — such as charging an unfair whack on energy bills if you didn’t pay by direct debit.
I remember watching that speech, thinking that it would change the political climate — and it did. For a long time, the media talked of little else. Over many weeks, the coalition was on the back foot and forced to come up with one policy or another to try and fill the void that Miliband had created for the Conservatives. Yet, for one reason or another — and with later mistakes like the “Edstone” — Miliband lost the momentum on this policy and the results of the 2015 election were there for all to see. Labour’s retail offer got lost in a haze of incoherence and credibility.
The real problem now is that Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign is designed to repeat the success of 2013 Miliband, not just once at a conference, but day after day, week after week. His appearances both inside and outside Parliament for the most part are focused on “retail” policies which follow clear rules: they are simple and understood by the public at large, they focus on a specific problem that millions of people face and they try to show the electorate that Labour is on their side. Whether it be high student fees, low-paid McDonald’s workers or public sector pay, these are all areas that resonate and that people have sympathy with.
The Labour weakness in all this, is that at some point there will be a day of reckoning, in which the public ask, how will these things really be paid for? The difficulty for the Conservatives, however, is that this question may only come after Labour has won an election.
So often, Conservatives wrongly think that retail politics is just an auction of promises that we can never win. I have never understood this view. There is nothing to stop the government developing retail politics of our own, properly costed and thought out, in key areas of policy that are Tory in nature but help to solve pressing problems.
Continued tax cuts for the lower-paid is a great retail offering, apprenticeships for hundreds of thousands of young people another. Scrapping hospital car parking charges is one way to show our commitment to the NHS and costs a relatively small amount, given the size of the NHS budget. The continued fuel duty freeze gives a signal to millions of motorists that we Conservatives are on their side.
This kind of retail politics should not be just based on a few popular tunes but must fit in overall with a general narrative of what conservatism is all about. For example, a National Living Wage is introduced because Conservatives are the party that supports workers and a decent wage, and gets people out of the welfare poverty trap and into work.
Cutting taxes for the lower-paid not only strengthens the moral basis for tax cuts as a whole, but also provides a route from welfare to work, jobs, security and prosperity.
Conservatives need retail politics not to ape Labour but because this is where the modern public is located. In a consumerist society, the consumers need to have a clear choice in areas that they know about, and are aware there is a problem.
The fluidity of current politics, the continued weakening of political tribalism, alongside increased choice in the personal sphere, means that voters’ support can be changed pretty quickly if there are policies that really catch the imagination.
If the Tories can develop a credible, costed retail political message that people can be convinced by, they have a real chance to recover lost ground.