The Week in Review: Another inch to the right

By Adam Bienkov

It was but a small step, an almost imperceptible shuffle of the boots, but as Chris Bryant stood up to deliver his immigration speech on Monday, British politics moved yet another inch to the right.

We've been heading this way for some time. Ever since the Conservatives hired Lynton Crosby, the party has gradually shifted the terms of debate back to the right.

Whether it's immigration, welfare or public sector cuts, the Tories are increasingly setting the agenda, while Labour increasingly look like they have little to say, and little idea how to say it.

Chris Bryant's speech on Monday was a perfect case in point. Over recent months, the Conservatives and their supporters in the press have relentlessly put the case that we are being beset by a zombie army of benefit-scrounging, job-stealing aliens.

The question of whether these aliens are too hard working, or not hard working enough, is never really resolved. It doesn't matter.

All that matters is that the Conservative party is against them (the job-stealing/workshy aliens) and for us (the hard-working, benefit-repelling Britons).

Labour's response, if we can call it that, is to remain in almost total monastic silence.

They are struck dumb by a desire to paint the Tories as lurching to the right, and a conflicting desire to assuage the fears of their own supporters. Caught in this trap, Labour have instead said as little as humanly possible.

In those terms Chris Bryant's speech was a total success. Rarely has one man said so little, over so many words and to such little effect.

Dressed in what looked like a rugby club tie and sporting a mildly terrified look, Bryant set about the business of pleasing precisely nobody.

Labour are in favour of immigrants, he assured us (as long as they're famous ones from history) but against immigration itself, which might be too high, but then again might not be.

Yet amid it all there was originally one interesting part to his speech. While the Tories and the Home Office have concentrated on targeting immigrants themselves, Bryant instead planned to launch an attack on the big businesses that use them to undercut the wages of British workers.

This was potentially an interesting line of attack. An opportunity for Labour to try and shift the terms of debate away from the bottom rungs of society, back up to the top.

Yet at the slightest whiff of resistance from the press and the companies themselves, this section was dropped.

In one poorly written, clumsily briefed speech, Bryant had managed to alienate many of his own supporters, botched an attack on his opponents, and won not a single vote in the process.

If Ed Miliband had needed another excuse to remain silent, then Bryant had certainly given him one.

When the Labour leader finally did emerge from his holiday on Tuesday he did little better. He wanted to say something about rising living costs and to do it while touring a working class market in south London.

But with no actual policy or even a ghost of a policy to announce, coverage of the visit was instead dominated by a former homeless cycle courier and his ability to throw an egg.

It's a sad indictment of Labour's recent performance, that Miliband's attempts to make light of the incident were probably the highlight of his week, if not his summer.

And yet it didn't have to be like this. Behind the headlines, Labour's hopes of winning the next election are basically unchanged.

Despite countless polls pointing to a narrowing of Labour's lead, Labour's actual share of the vote has hardly moved in the past year.

That the Tories' vote share has recovered somewhat in recent months has little to do with Ed Miliband's performance, and much more to do with a steady return of Ukip supporters to the Tory fold.

The simple fact is that Crosby's attempts to paint Nigel Farage's party as a bunch of "closet racists and loons" are working. And they're working because they're basically true.

Godfrey Bloom's "bongo-bongo land" comments and Stuart Wheeler's claim that women don't deserve to be on company boards because they're not very good at chess and bridge, will deter many of the protest votes that might otherwise have gone their way.

But none of this is enough to win the Conservative party the next election.

To win, they need to hold on to their core vote and also win over the kinds of voters they failed to win last time. These are the very people who will be turned off by the kinds of attacks on immigrants and 'benefit scroungers' launched in recent months.

And yet taken together these attacks create a particular climate. A climate in which the terms of debate blow inch by inch to the right.

The Home Office's "go home" vans may have been retired, but the truth is that they were never really intended to be rolled out across the country in the first place.

The real point of the vans, like everything else the Conservative party have done in recent months, was to shift British politics just a little bit more to the right.

Week by week, inch by inch, the Conservative party hopes to shift the political battleground to a point where they can more easily win.

It may not work. It may even backfire. But unless Miliband can find a way to reverse that shift, then British politics will continue to head inexorably away from where Labour wants it to be.

Miliband's supporters hope that he has some clear ideas on how to change this. The evidence from this week suggests that if he does, then he's keeping very quiet about it.