A lesson from the PMQs: Voters are disdainful of politics and will not pay for state funding of parties

Last week it was Ed at bay in PMQs, now it’s Cameron. Both leaders are vulnerable over party funding

Share

For once a session of Prime Minister’s Questions matters. Yesterday’s was even louder than usual and few voters will have noticed what happened. Nonetheless the exchanges between David Cameron and Ed Miliband shine rare light on the political situation and how it is likely to develop in the run up to the general election.

First, they reveal that Miliband is persistently underestimated, not least by his political opponents. A week ago Cameron slaughtered Miliband over Labour’s relationship with Unite and the unions more generally. Again few voters watched or noticed, but those exchanges lifted Tory morale, not an easy thing to do, while plunging some senior Labour figures into gloom and near panic. They also changed the media narrative. For the first time in a long time some pundits predicted victory for the Conservatives at the next election.

Normally when a supposedly weak Leader of the Opposition is in trouble the sense of crisis around him deepens. Think of William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith at moments of gloom. They never found ways onto lighter terrain. Instead the context got darker for them as they sought to wriggle towards some light. In contrast Miliband has wriggled formidably, so much so that he won the argument during yesterday’s joust.

 Miliband looked confident as he made his case over party funding. Cameron was evasive about the hedge fund millionaires that donate to his party and unwilling to accept Miliband’s proposal of a cap on donations of £5 000. With a flourish at the end of their exchanges Miliband was able to declare that he led a party of the people compared with Cameron who was funded by millionaires. The two sessions and their contrasts were like a tennis match where the fortunes of the two players change.

 Of course Miliband is still playing a very dangerous game with party funding. He could end up splitting his party and losing it lots of money. Another possible outcome is equally dangerous, in which compromises are made and he is depicted as weak. He has little political space. But given the constraints he has responded to a crisis in a way that creates a little more room for him to move than he had a week ago. Politically Miliband and his team have shown they have the strength to fight back in extremely difficult circumstances. They have proposed potentially sweeping changes to the link with the unions without causing, so far, a fatal internal eruption. Equally important he framed his arguments in an accessible way. In his speech on Tuesday he put the case for the reforms not as some dry internal operation, but as part of his ambition to speak for one nation rather than one union.

Cameron arrived in the Commons with little new to say about what Miliband had done. He assumed that a repeat of his performance the week before would do the trick again. Political leaders often underestimate their adversaries, although New Labour figures overestimated theirs. The diaries of Labour Cabinet ministers from the 1970s report many sneering references to Margaret Thatcher and how she was unelectable. Visitors to Cameron and George Osborne hear the same about Miliband.

But Miliband is more experienced and wily than they realise. He might look absurdly young, but he has been close to the top of politics since the early 1990s. He was not exposed to the same level of heat as Ed Balls, but he was there at the summit as two big strategists, Blair and Brown, navigated towards three election victories. Miliband is a very different figure, but he arrives on the equivalent of Wimbledon’s Centre Court with more awareness of crises, setbacks, fleeting highs and the rhythms of politics than most leaders of the opposition.

Not surprisingly therefore he has responded to the Falkirk saga with a degree of agility, not only making proposals on the union link, but on the wider issue of party funding and – in a very New Labour move that targets opponents – by proposing limits on MPs’ outside earnings.

The change in the dynamics over a single week tells us a little more about Cameron too. He is not an especially effective campaigner. A senior official in Number 10 tells me he is a pleasure to work for as Prime Minister, calm, thoughtful and, contrary to mythology, industrious. This may be so, but as a leader seeking to win he lacks the compelling, witty dexterity of the great election victors. Recently he has become more overtly a Tory campaigner, a figure far removed from his early emollient leadership, but a Harold Wilson, Tony Blair or even Margaret Thatcher would have returned to the Commons yesterday with fresh material to outwit a vulnerable opponent. They were ruthless electoral players, shaped and defined by years observing the mistakes and successes of other formidable leaders.

The issue that sparked yesterday’s exchanges should alarm both leaders. Voters are disdainful of politics and will not pay for state funding of parties. The current arrangements are the alternative, ones that generate endless rows about the donors of parties. The rows fuel voters’ disillusionment. There is no way around this until voters choose to contemplate the horrendous alternative to party politics and reflect on who they wish to make decisions other than despised elected politicians.

The next election will be contested in a relatively dark context with voters’ disillusionment as a backdrop, similar to the two contests that took place in 1974. In the run- up expect more contrasting highs and lows for Cameron and Miliband. Unlike the 1980s and 1990s neither leader will have the space to dominate overwhelmingly. Of the two,  it is Miliband, close to New Labour’s  formidably strained top table, who has had most experience of wildly oscillating  fortunes and about what to do when in  a tight corner. He showed yesterday how valuable such experience is.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Manager (Junior)

Negotiable: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Account Manager (Junior) Account ...

Javascript Developer

£40000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a...

Solar Business Development Manager – M&A

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Lead IOs Andriod Developer

£80000 - £90000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Applic...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Voices in Danger: The innocent journalist kidnapped by Russian separatists for 'spying'

Anne Mortensen
A Bengal tiger captured by a camera trap in Nepal  

Save the tiger: The success of the Bengal tiger in Nepal shows you can make a difference

Harvey Day
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried