Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow and Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
What was Ed Miliband’s most successful time 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 as comparable to Neil Kinnock’s anti-militant speech, 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 that ‘we are on your side’.
It suggested also that there were unfair practices from the larger energy companies – such as charging an unfair whack on energy bills if you didn’t pay by direct debit – which people felt to be true
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.
The real problem now is that Corbyn’s campaign is designed to repeat the success of 2013 Miliband, and not just once at a conference but day after day, week after week. His appearances, both inside and outside Parliament, are for the most part 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 and show the electorate that Labour is on their side.
Whether it be high student fees, low-paid McDonalds workers, or public sector pay, these are all areas that resonate. The Labour weakness in all this is that at some point there will be a day of reckoning when the public ask: how will these things really be paid for?
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 solve pressing problems.
Continued tax cuts for the lower paid is a great retail offering, apprentices for millions of young people another. Scrapping the hospital car parking tax is one way to show our commitment to the NHS and costs a relatively small amount to deal with, 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.
Conservatives need retail politics, not to ape Labour, but because this is where the modern public are at. In a consumerist society, the public need to have a clear choice in areas that they know about, and are aware there is a problem.
If we can develop a credible, costed retail political message that people can be convinced by, Conservatives may have a real chance in recovering lost ground.