Action: Ed Miliband attending the Durham Miners’ Gala on Sunday, the first Labour leader to do so for 23 years. Reaction: Sayeeda Warsi attacking him, for the 6,174th time, as ‘Red Ed’, the heir to Neil Kinnock. As scientific equations go, it is hardly a mystifying one. The Conservatives have been eager to play up Mr Miliband’s left-of-left credentials ever since the unions swept him into the Labour throne. A vote for him, they say, is not a vote for a freewheeling centrist like Tony Blair — but for an antediluvian, red-flag-waving nutjob. It would be as though Clause IV had never gone away.
Many say that this attack has political merit — but, increasingly, I doubt it. And even if it does I would wish that it didn’t. The adversarial nature of British politics can result in some inspired, impassioned debate, but it can also encourage name-calling that is equal-parts pathetic and off-putting. Remember when Labour campaigners donned top hats and tails to attack the ‘Tory toffs’ in Crewe and Nantwich, one of the least edifying moments — in a packed field — of Gordon Brown’s premiership? And remember the result? Using the party machine to probe and expose your opponent’s policies is one thing; using it to make cheap jibes is quite another. Often, it is only the voters’ intelligence that is insulted.
But, naturally, the Conservatives shouldn’t just consider my squeamish distaste for political knockabout when devising their communications strategy. No, there are more concrete reasons for being politer to Mr Miliband than that. And among those reasons are some that will have sent the Labour leader up to Durham in the first place.
When you dip a spoon into the alphabet soup of the last few elections, it’s clear that Labour lost much of their traditional working-class support in the decade leading up to 2010. They went from winning over 60 per cent of the DE social group in 1997 to just 40 per cent at the last election. The proportion of C2s voting for them went from 50 to 30 per cent over the same period. And if this is part of the reason why some Labour thinkers have now set up a group aiming to ‘win back’ the ‘five million voters who left Labour between 1997 and 2010’, it is most of the reason why Ed Miliband is now attending Miners’ Galas. The Labour leader may not necessarily be going the right way about securing working-class support, but at least he is trying. And he can try doubly hard now that he has Mr Blair on his side, a grinning shield against accusations of rampant leftism.
So what does it say when the Conservatives caricature Mr Miliband’s presence at a working-class gathering as an act of socialist sedition, done at the behest of his ‘militant, left-wing union paymasters’? The target here may have been the Labour leader, but his audience might, quite understandably, have felt slandered too. Even if none of them are — or ever will be — Conservative voters, the very suggestion that those attending a Miners’ Gala are somehow beyond the political pale is poisonous in itself. If the Conservative Party is ever to be confident of a majority, it will need more working-class and youth votes. It will need to do much more to prise open Labour’s grip on regions such as the North-East of England. And the way to go about that is not by tossing around lazy insults.
Besides, this conflation of Labour, the unions and all that is bad neglects an important fact: that there is much in the union movement that Conservatives should seek to nurture, not alienate. Labour’s own Hilary Benn made this point in a tweet on Sunday that read, ‘Someone tell Baroness Warsi that the Durham Miners’ Gala and the trade union movement were part of our big society long before [the] PM was born.’ But for a fuller account, I’d recommend Robert Halfon’s recent pamphlet for Demos, entitled Stop the union-bashing. I won’t rehash Mr Halfon’s argument here, suffice to say that it gallops persuasively through the historical ties between the Conservative Party and unions; the role of unions in civil society; and the support that the Conservatives have received, and still receive, from some union-members. There are around seven million people affiliated with unions in this country, and it’s thought that about a third of them are Conservative voters. To treat them as one unyielding blob — ‘them’ against ‘us’ — is a particularly blithe sort of way to shed votes.
Of course, like many large organisations with entrenched bureaucracies, the unions are far from perfect. There is good cause to unpick their financial ties with Labour, just as there is good cause for ministers such as Michael Gove to be annoyed at how some unions have set themselves against effective policy. But treating ‘union’ like a swearword, and little else, is unlikely to help matters. Instead, a more circumspect approach — giving union-members more reason to vote Conservative — might amplify the calls for change from within the union movement itself. And that process can start with more caution from the Conservatives about whom they attack, how and why.
None of this is to say that the votes will come pouring in if Sayeeda Warsi and her colleagues stop being beastly to Mr Miliband. The process is a long-term one, much like deficit reduction. If spending isn’t cut now, then future generations will face even more uncertainty and hurt. If the Conservatives don’t start trying to change the parameters of class politics now, then future leaders and candidates will be similarly afflicted. And, worst of all, Ed Miliband would have cause to smile and think — ‘better Red than dead’.