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Party pieces

Simon Barrow

BarrowHas David Cameron's 'Big Society' project been fatally derailed by austerity economics and a failure of vision? Questions of this kind were coming from party gurus like Philip Blond, not just opponents, as the Conservatives gathered for their conference in Birmingham.

With public spending cuts starting to bite and living standards being pinned back, the Tories seem stuck at under 35% in poll after poll. Long-term electoral demographics now suggest that they will struggle to come out anywhere near on top at the next General Election.
Seeking to capitalise on the whiff of Coalition crisis, the Labour leader Ed Milliband used his conference moment to project himself as something more resonant with voters than a clever student who got lucky and ended up leading a party - which is how too many still see him.

As a piece of political theatre, his one-hour plus speech, made without notes, was undoubtedly riveting. By pitching Labour as the 'One Nation Party', Milliband was not just seeking to steal tTory clothes. He was also trying to carve out a plausible political space to distinguish his re-energised battalions from the profligacy of Old Labour on the one hand, and the degeneration of Blair's 'Third Way' into saturated opportunism on the other.

The question about what Labour would actually do with power in deficit-driven Britain is another matter, of course. As the territory between the largest parties narrows, the gap between aspirational rhetoric and practical delivery grows ever wider.

Not that the Lib Dems even succeeded with the former. The soundbite the media took away from their conference was 'I'm Sorry', popularised by an unflattering YouTube version of Nick Clegg's attempt at damage limitation for his toxic brand.

Many grassroots Lib Dems still harbour the dream of a balancing coalition with Labour after the next election. But right now it looks as if they would be lucky to be in a position even to contemplate that possibility.

Meanwhile, Labour's campaign managers believe that the party has to be seen to combine what one wonk described to me recently as 'unifying vision and tough wisdom'. That is, they have to sound inspirational and cautious all at once.

Perhaps this explains the apparent u-turn on the very social security universalism that Ed Milliband was until recently championing. Liam Byrne and Johann Lamont are spearheading a campaign to make means-tested and restricted benefits acceptable on the left.

The danger in this is that welfare becomes seen as a matter for addressing ghettoised poverty, rather than a way of creating a genuinely inclusive social framework buttressed by fair taxation and redistributive economics. That is the levelling goal that until now has formed the common, galvanising thread between Labour's various tribes.

Simon Barrow