LONDON — After a year in which he led the charge for gay marriage in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron seemed to go back to his roots this week. Serving up red meat to his base at the Conservative Party’s annual conference, Cameron repeatedly blasted the left and offered a core vision of tax cuts, reduced public spending, immigration caps and a war on welfare that would warm the hearts of the American tea party.
Cameron’s speech was illustrative of a shift in Britain’s political landscape being laid bare at the annual party conferences that hit this nation every autumn. With the sprint toward campaign season already taking shape 18 months ahead of national elections, an era in which politicians here were tripping over themselves in a race to the center appears to be coming to a close. Instead, the party leaders in a nation that has long stood as the United States’ closest ally are rushing back to their political comfort zones, highlighting a certain polarization in national politics that has become the new norm on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the 1990s, former prime minister Tony Blair built the brand of “New Labor” on the back of a fresh, business-friendly attitude. But the tabloids here are now declaring “Red Ed” Miliband the head of a more hard-line Labor Party that harkens back to yesteryear.
A decade after Blair led Britain to war in Iraq, Miliband’s opposition in August to military action in Syria effectively torpedoed British involvement and set up a chain reaction that doomed plans for a U.S.-led military strike. At the Labor Party conference last week, Miliband used his pulpit as leader of Britain’s largest opposition force to lash out at private utility companies for gouging consumers. He offered a dramatic pledge to freeze energy prices for two years should his party manage to take back 10 Downing St. He also vowed to raise taxes on big banks and address Britain’s housing crisis by forcing developers who are hoarding land to “use it or lose it.”
Miliband is now locked in a war of words with the right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail after it published a highly charged story about his father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband. The Labor leader, who has said his own views do not echo his father’s, has demanded an apology for the piece, which was headlined “The Man who Hated Britain” and, in an online version, carried a photo of Ralph Miliband’s gravestone with the caption “grave socialist.” The Mail has conceded the photo was an “error of judgment” but has stood by its story.
Yet even Jonathan Freedland, columnist for the liberal British daily the Guardian, said it was “hard to deny” that Miliband’s proposals last week were “avowedly to the left” and amounted to “a new and emerging strain of left populism.”
“Back in the 1970s, [Miliband’s] headline-grabbing call for a freeze on energy bills would have been bracketed under ‘price controls,’ ” Freedland wrote. “His use-it-or-lose-it ultimatum to developers sitting on valuable real estate could easily be recast by its opponents as Bolshevik-style land confiscation.”
Yet, for both Miliband and Cameron, there may be method in their madness.
The Conservative and Labor parties are already waging a “race within the race” ahead of 2015. Cameron’s rhetoric this week, for instance, appeared at least partly aimed at battling a recent swell of support for the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose anti-immigrant message has found eager ears among Conservative voters uneasy with Cameron’s tack to the center on issues such as same-sex marriage. And after a huge gaffe at the UKIP party conference two weeks ago — a ranking party member called a room full of female activists “sluts” — Cameron may see an opening to staunch the bleeding on his far-right.
By the same token, Miliband is seeking to reach out to alienated members of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third-largest political force, whose popular support has plunged since it entered into a historic coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 elections. For many rank-and-file Liberal Democrats — and particularly those within the party’s left wing — it amounted to a betrayal of trust that has not been forgiven.
“The way I see it, the next election is going to be 46 to 48 percent for Labor and the Liberal Democrats, and 44 to 46 percent for the Conservatives and UKIP,” said Peter Kellner, president of the London-based YouGov polling firm. “So what Labor and the Conservatives are doing now is staking out positions to win their sides of that equation.”
And yet, while Britain’s two largest political parties appear on the surface to be setting the clock back, in truth, both the Conservatives and the Labor Party are, in many ways now, incontrovertibly reformed. On a Manchester stage this week, Cameron at times appeared downright Bill Clintonesque, imbuing his speech with an infectious optimism about turning Britain into a “land of opportunity.” He even exited the stage to a song forever linked to Clinton — Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).”
Yes, Cameron gushed about traditional values and the importance of marriage, but that is a category that, in part because of Cameron’s own efforts, notably includes same-sex couples. And if he offered a Conservative vision of fiscal reform, he also held up his nation as a global example of “tolerance, of people living together from every nation, every religion, young and old, straight and gay.”
Miliband, though perhaps a populist, is also hardly the left-wing firebrand of old Labor, and his bigger problem still seems to be his inability to personally connect with voters. He has pledged not to reverse the Conservative’s fiscal cuts and to match any new spending to budget cuts or new revenue. He also has moved decisively to curb his party’s incestuous financial relationship with labor unions.
Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said Miliband may indeed veer “slightly” to the left of Blair’s love affair with the free market.
“But by no means is he going back to the dark red days of the Labor party in the 1970s,” Fielding said.
Karla Adam contributed to this report.