Leadership, the economy and 2015
David Cameron talks about leadership but he does not show any. When given the opportunity to outline how his government will combat a potential recession, outrageous levels of unemployment and severe housing shortages, Cameron fails to deliver. When asked what his government has done to support jobs, the Prime Minister touts policies that have failed. When pressed on the failure of his government to create growth, he blames Labour. This is not the embodiment of leadership but an abdication of leadership.
What makes a leader?
The Conservative Party decided to emphasise leadership at this year’s Conference in Manchester. Polls emphasising David Cameron’s popularity, as opposed to tepid support for the Labour leader, represent what the Tories see as their greatest electoral asset. In Manchester, Cameron spoke of the tremendous leadership he and the Chancellor had shown by imposing an extended period of austerity upon the UK. The Prime Minister and his colleagues often reference the many numbers of prominent business leaders and economic organisations who support their economic policies. Rarely does an Osborne v Balls debate pass without the Chancellor seizing the opportunity to emphasise how well buttressed his position is, with great support at home and abroad.
It is fairly nonsensical to claim that doing what everyone says you should be doing is evidence of good leadership – this seems more like following than leading. The exalted position given to the prevailing economic view is troubling in another sense too, since it was not some strange brand of voodoo economics that led us into recession, but widely accepted and practised fiscal and monetary strategies.
The main Conservative criticism of the New Labour governments, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is that by following the economic orthodoxy of their time they led the country into what has been described as our most severe economic crisis ever. This must be the complaint, because problems in the rest of Europe and in the USA show us that this economic malaise is not restricted to the UK. Labour were neither setting nor bucking the economic trend, rather they were entrenched within it whole hog.
It is difficult then, to see why the Conservatives believe that following policy trends is so precious now, but was careless and incompetent before.
It is clear that Labour leaders failed to show good leadership in the past and that Cameron and Osborne are failing now. Focusing so heavily on cutting the deficit by reducing spending is now causing clear problems as public sector jobs are being lost. The highest level of unemployment for 17 years has no place on the path to deficit reduction. If tax receipts fall and welfare payments rise, then government borrowing will have to be increased. This is already happening and if it continues it will be disastrous for the government. The government must find a plan to create jobs. As Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, “plan A, B or C – Britain just needs a plan for growth.”
U-turn if you want to
The decimation of Liberal Democrat support, and the failure of Labour to make inroads during local elections, has given the Conservatives heart. Ed Miliband is not loved by the public, but as Conservative thinker Tim Montgomerie has astutely noted, the unpopularity of the Labour Party and its leader is not to be mistaken for Conservative success.
Current policies are not working and recognising and adapting to this would be a sign of good leadership. A lot of Cameron’s popularity probably comes from the fact that he has responded proactively to public ire a number of times. Whether it was the NHS proposals, selling of forests, or cutting prison sentences; the Prime Minister has been truly deft in his approach, and managed to sell his U-turns as evidence for a “listening government.” It may be a response to the obstinateness of Tony Blair over Iraq, and Gordon Brown’s famously uncompromising personality, but the British people do not mind this government changing tact. Given its importance, failure to be brave on the economy may well prove to be fatal for both coalition parties at the next election.
If the Conservative Party continues to blame Labour for poor economic conditions (and also everything else that is bad) much longer, then they will begin to lose credibility. The public is willing to buy the argument that Labour got us into this mess and the Conservatives are getting us out, but this will be a tough line to take without significant improvements by 2015.
The Conservatives should not underestimate Ed Miliband. He is still only one year into his job and importantly – he is improving. Unlike David Cameron, he has led public opinion bravely on a number of issues recently. He was ahead of Cameron on phone hacking, has challenged the status of big business and other vested interests, and has recently set the agenda over monopolised energy sale and production. If the Conservatives want to make leadership a big electoral issue, then they have given Miliband a lot of opportunity to say that he, and not the Prime Minister, best exhibits the necessary qualities of a leader.
There are some serious flaws in a Tory electroal strtaegy based upon leadership. The Conservative interpretation of leadership looks to be full of holes, and there are many examples showing Ed Miliband and not David Cameron to be the greater political leader in a more straightforward sense of the word. The idea that a 2015 election focusing on the relative leadership qualities of Miliband and Cameron would be ideal for the Conservatives, may seem a lot less plausible come the next general election.