Political Jargon: Has David Cameron Dropped His 'Global Race' Card?

03/10/2013 17:38 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

The 'global race'. It's a term close followers of British politics are likely to have become familiar with. The Conservative top-table - believing that a message will only register with voters once it has been exhausted to the point of nausea - have loyally referred to it in columns and interviews for almost a year.

But at this year's Tory conference in Manchester it seemed to have been relegated down a division. Despite being tipped in July to hold centre-stage, it found itself playing second fiddle to simpler statements such as 'Tax cut for 25million people', 'Welfare capped' and 'Immigration down'. Mentioned only twice during David Cameron's speech, it was almost as rare as any new policy announcements.

A wise move. As an overarching theme for the challenges the country faces, it is perfectly reasonable. In a globalised world, Britain stands a better chance of succeeding with its people skilled, its taxes competitive and its infrastructure developed. However, in isolation, the 'global race' message comes across as cold, clinical and emotionless. Is it really as meaningful to people in Wolverhampton as it is to those in Westminster?

Ed Miliband's seizure of Disraeli's 'One Nation' received equally lukewarm enthusiasm. Back in August over half (51%) claimed not to 'know what Ed Miliband stands for', according to Ipsos MORI. That's not surprising. During Labour's summer of discontent, Ed clung to 'One Nation' while his brother David littered an Andrew Marr show interview with phrases such as "make a difference" and "if you over-calculate you miscalculate". Chuka Umunna then promised to "turn up the volume". You might have asked at the time, turn up the volume on what?

Now we have more of an idea. Ed Miliband's conference speech, with its pledge to freeze energy bills for almost two years and increase the minimum wage, was a clear and significant move to the left. 'Red Ed' may have returned, but at least it has replaced 'weak Ed'. Keep an eye on post-conference polling; expect far less to say they don't know what Miliband stands for. As Seumas Milne suggests, the ideological gap between Labour and Tory is now wider than it has been for decades. Yes, Labour have committed to matching George Osborne's spending plans for a year after 2015. But now, in language at least, it seems we have a clearer choice between left and right.

Never on the doorsteps will a voter say; "I think we're falling behind in the global race" or "I'm concerned about the deep divisions in society, you know, it just doesn't seem like One Nation these days". Of course, politicians will be articulate, but should they sound like a student in a seminar trying to impress their politics professor?

There will be those who contest that politics is a battle of ideas. Indeed, do leaders not have a duty to conceptualise the 'good society'? Certainly. But politics is a results business, and a short-term one at that. Even conservative thinker Edmund Burke - fashionable-as-ever according to Tory MP reading material - was not immensely popular until after his death. Without resorting to UKIP-style 'common sense' populism, the political class should be able to communicate moderate, sensible ideas in concise, layman's terms that the average voter can understand.

Those who commute into London Victoria station will be familiar with Battersea Power Station. It was here that Cameron presented his 'Big Society' vision and the puzzling 'Invitation to join the Government of Britain' to mostly either fear or confusion. Indeed, post-election, Lord Ashcroft's Minority Verdict concluded that many voters feared 'change had merely been cosmetic', and even two years later, YouGov found that 63% of Brits did not understand the 'Big Society' plans.

Tactically, it simply didn't work. 'People found it too abstract to be enticing', acknowledges the Economist. Relaunch after relaunch it seems to have been put on the back-burner; the 'Big Society' was not mentioned once in Cameron's speech. The 'global race' could well follow suit. Like Labour, the Tories are finally sharpening their game. Partly to thank for that is Lynton Crosby's work at focussing the Tory message on two or three clear messages: I'd be surprised if the experienced Australian strategist sees the 'global race' as a vote-winner.

Politicians like to talk of the need to 'learn lessons'. In the shortfalls of the 2010 general election campaign the Conservatives can take note of a significant one; the 'global race' is important, but it should be kept well away from the front cover of the next Tory manifesto.