Andrew Smith is a Senior Policy Adviser at the public affairs agency Connect Communications and a Conservative Councillor on Westminster City Council. Follow Andrew on Twitter.
Labour’s mini reshuffle is the first time that Ed Miliband has been able to appoint his choice of shadow team. His previous choices were restricted by the combination of shadow cabinet elections and, most importantly, the need for him to smooth over the division caused by the defeat of his brother in the leadership election and the chasm separating the instincts of those on the right and left of the party.
This week he operated from a position of strength. His leadership seems secure as the party enjoys double figure leads in the polls and recent successes in the local elections. He was therefore free to choose members of his top team that reflect his vision of the future of the party.
What do these choices mean for the future of the Labour Party and what could this mean for the Conservative campaign to form a majority government at the next election?
The decision to remove Liam Byrne as the head of Labour’s policy review is reflective of concern within the Labour Party about the progress of the review, but perhaps more importantly the ideological direction that Byrne was taking the review, especially on issues such as welfare reform.
Those close to the decision have suggested that there were two possible choices to replace Liam Byrne; Andrew Adonis who would have indicated a continuing Labour interest in public service reform, or John Cruddas, Tony Blair’s former union fixer whose political career has shown him to be an implacable opponent of almost any reform, in education, in welfare provision, or in the health service.
The Cruddas appointment has shown the path that Ed Miliband wants the party to take, which is clearly a leftwards one. A direction that cares more about the rights of unionised public sector workers rather than the needs of users of public services and the need for reform to ensure that the welfare state can survive the huge fiscal and demographic challenges the public sector will face in the future.
Welfare reform along with educational reform is one area where the coalition has been seen as successful, and if the Labour Party wants to pitch its camp on defending the benefit culture against the reforms that Iain Duncan Smith has begun to put in place, it provides a clear opportunity for the Conservatives to develop dividing lines between our view of fairness against the continuation of the dependency culture to which the public is increasingly hostile.
Whilst Conservatives need to exploit this anti-reform shift in the Labour Party’s policy making machinery, there is another side to Cruddas’ view of socialism that could present a challenge to our ability to deliver a majority government.
Jon Cruddas’ quote “What interests me is not policy as such” has caused some amusement considering his appointment as Labour’s policy chief, but that quote highlights a strength in his approach. He is an intellectual, but not a policy wonk and his understanding of politics is far more visceral than most of his colleagues and, as Ben Brogan suggested in the Telegraph, too many of the Conservative front bench.
Cruddas’ strength is his understanding of the politics of identity and solidarity and his belief that, rather than being feared, these forces should be embraced by the centre left. One of his themes has been how the left needs to understand patriotism and fears about immigration and crime.
He has already stirred up the hornets’ nest of division within the coalition and on the question of an EU referendum by suggesting that the Labour Party will push for one, and there will be more of these grenades to come.
Policy Exchange’s excellent recent polling on political attitudes throughout the country, highlighted the weakness of the Conservative brand especially in urban areas. We are seen as a party which is solely interested in the concerns of the rich, whilst there is still a worrying belief that the Labour Party stands up for ordinary people. Jon Cruddas’ version of ‘Blue Labour’ is well placed to exploit that disconnect amongst the voters we need to persuade to deliver a majority next time.
The next election will be fought and won on a combination of views on each party’s competence and their values. Economic growth is key to restoring the Conservative Party’s reputation for competence, which has declined alarmingly recently. If Jon Cruddas is successful in converting the Labour Party to his vision of a politics of identity, this could be a real challenge to our chances of success in those marginal seats we need to win to deliver a majority.
We need to move quickly from the navel gazing at internal divisions, which is too tempting for too many Conservatives, and focus on proving that we are the party which reflects the instincts of the majority of the British public and the party that is best placed to deliver a fair deal for this country’s ‘strivers’.