The electorate prefers a united party to a split one – Ed Miliband needs only to keep Labour on a steady course, says Allan Massie
Political parties are rarely all of one mind. They may fall apart over issues. The Liberal Party split over Gladstone’s proposal to grant Home Rule to Ireland. This was good news for the struggling Scottish Conservatives, who were reinforced by the Liberal Unionists. Labour split in the early 1980s because leading members of the last Labour Cabinet were alarmed by the party’s lurch to the Left, and broke away to form the Social Democratic Party. This was good news for the Liberals, who soon linked up with the SDP.
The Conservatives themselves, the British political party with the longest unbroken history, have also suffered from damaging splits. In 1846, the party broke up over Sir Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws and rejection of Protection in favour of Free Trade. The Peelites soon joined the Liberals, and the Tories did not form a majority government for almost 30 years.
And in 1906, the party was divided over Joseph Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform proposals. There were few defectors – though one of them was a young MP called Winston Churchill – but nevertheless the Tories were heavily defeated in the 1906 general election. As the received wisdom has it, the electorate does not love divided parties.
Now the Conservatives are in danger of repeating this experience. The issue is immigration, which is a matter of grave concern to many, but also a code-word for the European Union. We have already seen a couple of Tory MPs defecting to Ukip, and more may follow.
In an attempt to stave this off, David Cameron has been pushed in Ukip’s direction, talking about imposing quotas on migrants from EU member states. Given that free movement of capital and labour is a founding principle of the EU, such a measure would be illegal, unless he can persuade the Council of Ministers to grant the UK a derogation, which would permit a suspension of the right to free movement for a number of years. Attempting to get such agreement will be uphill work.
Now the outgoing president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has stirred things up further by pointing out that Margaret Thatcher was an economic liberal and a believer in free markets. If, Barroso says, you have a free market in goods and services, then it follows that you have one in labour, too.
The anti-immigration Tories see it differently, as Ukip does. In their view, admitting migrants may make economic sense – businesses are all in favour – but it has damaging social consequences for communities and you must take this into account.
Fair enough, you may say. Well yes, you may say, but when the Thatcher government embarked on a programme of liberalising markets, breaking the protectionist power of the trade unions, privatising nationalised industries and state-owned utilities, and selling off council houses, it paid no heed to any damaging social consequences that such policies might have.
The truth is, of course, that the Tory party has always been a broad church. Throughout its long history it has included economic liberals and protectionists in its ranks. Sometimes one lot has been in the ascendancy, sometimes the other. The late Scottish Tory MP, Bob Boothby, used to recall a train journey in the early 1920s in the company of the party leader, Stanley Baldwin. As the train passed through industrial towns where no smoke was coming from factory chimneys, Baldwin said: “We must have Protection”. And in the Depression a few years later, the National Government, dominated by Baldwin, abandoned Free Trade and introduced tariffs to protect British industry. Economic liberalism remained out of fashion till Thatcher became prime minister.
Immigration and the control of immigration are going to be key issues at next May’s general election, at least in England. Cameron is in the uncomfortable position of trying to ride two horses at the same time. Instinctively he is an economic liberal, but the magnetism of Ukip and the rebellious mood of a large part of his parliamentary party and of his party in the country is pulling him towards Protection, for social, not economic reasons.
It’s difficult to see how he can maintain his balance. His best hope is to persuade voters that he will be able to persuade leaders of other EU countries that keeping the UK in the EU is sufficiently important to permit a suspension of untrammelled free movement of labour, and that no-one else can bring off this trick. But scepticism reigns within his own party, where sympathy with Ukip’s aims is evident and evidently increasing. It is therefore difficult to see how the Tories can present a united face to the electorate.
All this is good news for Labour and for Ed Miliband. Miliband’s weaknesses have been well-advertised. His opinion poll ratings are negative, very negative indeed. Dissatisfaction with his leadership is evident, even among members of his shadow cabinet. But he is playing a weak hand quite cleverly.
Like Brer Rabbit he has been lying low in a briar bush and saying “nuffin’”. He has held his party together. Murmurings about his leadership are muted. If he can hold Labour’s vote steady at its present level – about 36 per cent – that will be enough to make it the largest party in the next parliament. Thanks to the present constituency boundaries, it’s generally reckoned that the Tories need to be five or six points ahead of Labour to be in that position themselves. On the average of polls, they are still several points behind.
Given the choice between a divided party and a united one, which will the electorate opt for? The more Cameron says and promises, the deeper his difficulty. The less Miliband says, the easier his position. Ukip scares the Tories and they move towards it, away from the centre ground where elections are won and lost. Ukip may take votes from Labour in northern constituencies, but probably not in sufficient number to take seats. Ukip is therefore likely to damage the Tories far more than it damages Labour.
Objectively speaking, as the Marxists used to say, Ukip is really Labour’s friend. So Ed Miliband, holding the middle ground, is in a comfort zone and David Cameron in a very uncomfortable position.