How to win an election? There does not seem to be a clear winner in the current contest, and no party won an overall majority in 2010. Before giving my answer to the question, it is important to stress there are deep currents that will partly determine the outcome this May. The two potential Prime Ministers, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, cannot do much about these strong tides.
Since the financial crash of 2008, and in many cases well before then, key voters have felt a sense of powerlessness as they navigate their way around a lightly regulated economy and fractured public services. They turn to the smaller parties, which have been decontaminated by power. In Scotland some voters support independence with greater vehemence now than they did in the referendum last September. The currents make it difficult for one party to win.
But in one area at least leaders have control over their fate. Like their predecessors in previous contests they frame their chosen arguments, they are the main advocates of whatever wider case they choose to make, and they select their teams, deciding whether or not to make senior colleagues feel part of a project or moodily detached from it.
This element of leadership is closer to artistry than science, but it is as important as the other many required qualifications. The big election winners in the recent past have cast a spell over the electorate and the media, giving an impression of momentum, conviction and unity even if there is fragility below the surface. I do not refer to artistry in a pejorative way. Leadership in the build-up to an election is partly about casting spells. Elections are not seminars, but battles for power.
Two of the big post-war election winners, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, were as unsure and defensively expedient as David Cameron and Ed Miliband can appear to be now. Few noticed as they moved from opposition to power. They cast a spell.
In the build-up to the 1979 election Thatcher and her senior colleagues were split over many of the big issues of the time. One of the raging questions then was whether she should support an incomes’ policy. Her answer came in what was her pre-election route to power, a detailed publication called The Right Approach.
In absurdly contradictory sentences she simultaneously supported and opposed an incomes’ policy. Here are the words authorised by the leader of apparently unyielding conviction: “Experience does not suggest that a fully fledged incomes policy is the solution. The same experience demonstrates the unswisdom of permanently denying the idea”. Try reading that aloud without laughing.
In her memoirs Thatcher acknowledged the policy was a “fudge”. Imagine if Cameron or Miliband espoused such a “fudge” now. They would be vilified in the media, especially Miliband who is more of a target for some newspapers and broadcasters. But in the build-up to the election Thatcher’s artistry, limited but decisive, covered over the wide cracks. In her resolute pre-election ubiquity she insisted that she had no time for long cabinet meetings, but wanted to focus all her energies on getting the state off people’s backing and making sure the country spent only what it earned, like her father in his grocer’s shop. She conveyed the impression of a strong leader when in reality she could not even decide whether she supported an incomes policy.
Before the 1997 election Tony Blair’s spellbinding performance hid even wider cracks. Look back at the punditry then and Blair was hailed as a radical change-maker, against the weak kneed defensive John Major. The reverse was closer to the truth. Blair had accepted Major’s spending and income tax levels and entered the election not knowing whether he would join the Euro, introduce a Scottish Parliament and electoral reform for the Commons or whether his friend Paddy Ashdown would be in the cabinet. None of this mattered very much then. Blair conveyed a sense of dynamism, making big speeches outlining how his party had changed, leaping on daily events to amplify his case, giving regular interviews in which he was wittily engaged. Few noticed the degree to which on all the big issues of the time he was keeping his options open.
Cameron and Miliband seek to win in more challenging circumstances, but almost the opposite applies to them compared with the big election winners. Voters see all the joins. Sometimes they see them when they do not exist. Cameron began his leadership claiming to be a progressive, committed to the environment and Labour’s spending levels. Now he fights an election pledging further deep spending cuts and is reported to have referred to “green crap”. In elections appearance matters. The great political artists were not as coherent as they appeared to be. Taken as a whole, Cameron’s leadership appears to be incoherent.
Miliband has a thought-through ideology but sometimes does not appear to have one. Even now at this late stage there are internal debates at high levels in his party whether he should put his case as a radical change-maker or as a leader who offers little more than a few unthreatening policies to help those with the “cost of living crisis”. Last week he was more of the radical change maker, taking on business leaders who had attacked him. Sometimes he is more cautious. The differences are striking rather than hidden.
Quite often he can be radical and then cautious. Again the sequence is very transparent. A typical example is when Miliband was instrumental in Cameron’s defeat over a military strike on Syria. This was an historic moment, a leader of the opposition determining foreign policy at its most highly charged. The next morning it was George Osborne who appeared on the Today programme, cleverly defusing a crisis for his government. Miliband was nowhere to be seen or heard. He struggles to weave a wider narrative that makes sense of disparate radical acts.
Why has Cameron alienated those on the left of centre he used to woo without winning over enough voters on the right to be confident of victory? How has Miliband allowed some timely insights on failed markets and the virtues of competition to become a silly, but for him dangerous debate about whether he is “anti-business”? For all the deep currents, a fully formed political artist would win this election.