You can tell what the Tory focus groups are saying by watching the way the Tories behave. Right now, they are trying to close down the perception that the government has no ideas or purpose, other than the cuts. They know they have no agenda, once the cuts agenda is done.
This explains the flurry of rather pointless ideas announced in the last couple of weeks. Each one of them is half-baked and each one is accompanied with same the line, “Labour did nothing about this in 13 years”.
An example is Theresa May’s call for a consultation of Stop and Search, arguing that the policy tends to target young black males. This got widely reported and became a talking point on the media, even though it was completely shallow. This is not serious policy, just a suggestion that people have a chat about something. Yet every Tory politician took to the air to attack Labour for doing nothing for 13 years.
On health they talk of a £200 deposit for foreigners entering the country. Again, MPs took to the airwaves to claim that Labour did nothing for 13 years of government. There has been little response from Labour to this proposal, but Andy Burnham tells me that he can’t respond as he still doesn’t know the details. He doesn’t object to stopping abuse, but he does object to the idea that Labour had done nothing about the issue previously.
On prisons they seem to think they can ship convicts off to St Helena to serve their ten year sentence, then bring them back for the last six months to serve their sentence close to their family. Presumably convicts can send CDs home so that their children can grow up hearing daddies voice, then after several years of absence the children can get to know daddy on 6 prison visits. If they hadn’t cancelled Labour’s prison building program, then the whole sentence could have been served within travel distance of the family. Yet they say, “Labour did nothing in 13 years”.
The Tories don’t fear being called “nasty”, they fear being called “pointless”. Once the cuts agenda is finished, what is the point of the them? As usual, rather than addressing the problem, they address the presentation. They believe that if they can repeat often enough that Labour didn’t do this or that, they hope that people will perceive that the Conservatives are busy bees, while Labour are a waste of time, even though the opposite is true.
Which brings me to a prominent fault of Mr Miliband. He doesn’t like to celebrate the achievements of Labour’s 13 years of glory. As if the recent past is an embarrassment, or as if he’s too insecure to picture himself alongside giants such as Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, he doesn’t want to acknowledge the legacy, even though that’s what the Tories are most frightened of. They are desperate to avoid being compared to Labour’s glorious recent past.
Judging by their actions, I’d say that the Tories’ main purpose is to attack Labour. They are in government, we are in opposition, but they do more attacks on us, than we do on them. This is the other weakness of Miliband’s leadership. He only comes alive on Wednesday lunchtimes.
The problem for us is that the Labour party previously argued that the cuts agenda shouldn’t exist at this point in time, and we are now being forced to acknowledge that it does exist whether we like it or not. We had a faulty strategy. We fired a single barrel shotgun at a dual target issue. That is, we offered a Keynesian response to the economy, which included putting off the cuts till later. This gave the impressions that we didn’t want to confront them at all. Now we’re soon to be beyond the cuts and we look as if we don’t respect them. People fear we’ll reverse them.
Ed Miliband must use his own personality to communicate the message, but if it was me, I would appreciate the fact that the government have done the unpleasant job of making the difficult decisions on the cuts, as it means we don’t have to concern ourselves with that. This is not telling the public what they don’t already know. Nor is it admitting a weakness. We would have done the cuts, but it’s not what we were put on this planet to do. The Tories, on the other hand, have enjoyed it.
I’d say that the cuts agenda ends when the decisions on what to cut have been finished. So the implementation may continue, but the difficult political decisions are done. At that point, the Tories will have to tell us what is the reason is for their existence, and I don’t think they know how to answer that question. In fact, I was quite surprised that George Osborne recently extended the cuts agenda, by creating a reason to make more cuts.
That was unexpected. Very unexpected. Forgive me for my suspicious mind, but is it possible that the Tories don’t want the cuts agenda to end, for fear of not knowing what to do after?