What on earth is going on with Labour?
The party first hit a double digit lead in the polls – the UK ones, that is – over the Conservatives at the end of March this year. Since then, it has regularly polled a lead of over 10%, reinforcing the maxim that Oppositions don’t win elections, but Governments lose them. The drop-off in support for the Conservatives has everything to do with it either being found wanting on some of the big issues, or found out in regard to others.
There’s also little sign that the Tories have a clue what to do to seize back the initiative and start leading the news agenda. Michael Gove’s brilliant but utterly batty attempts to do so in education fall well short of what is required. Day in day out, the UK Government is being buffeted by events and headlines and cannot get off the back foot. This malaise filters through to the electorate’s psyche, hence the drifting away of support.
And what does Labour have to do to capitalise on it all? Nothing. Talk strong, seize every opportunity going to hammer the nails into the Tories’ coffins but otherwise, keep their heads down and offer the political equivalent of tea and sympathy to voters. And watch the poll lead grow steadily towards 2015.
So why on earth has it started on a round of voluntary redundancies at its headquarters? All that does is trigger a warning light in voters’ heads that all is not right with the good ship Labour. Who wants to think about investing a vote in a leaky, unstable vessel?
And then there’s the unseemly internal wranglings over what can loosely be termed the soul of the party, with the unions in particular trying hard to junk the right of the party. Folk on the left don’t like Progress and its New Laboury connotations and want rid. Such tensions might have aye been in the movement but to bring them out into the open now suggests that the party is focused on internal differences – never a very good idea.
Yet, it is clear from recent performances by the Labour front bench that the party has jumped the centre fence and is back in left territory. Ed Balls has been performing assuredly and authoritatively on the economy, offering a credible alternative with his pseudo-Keynsian growth measures. Andy Burnham put in a good shift on BBC Question Time last week, attacking the immorality of the rich getting away with paying less tax than the rest of us. And as long as Cameron holds fast to his Culture Minister, Jeremy Hunt and Leveson looks like it’s going to do nothing to lance the cancer that caused it to be established, there’s hay to be made. Especially when there’s Tom Watson popping up everywhere like a grinning Cheshire cat to hiss I told you all so.
The big hitters seem to be rather enjoying themselves, which isn’t hard when there are so many easy targets to aim for right now.
So, why oh why, has their leader chosen this moment to blast his dog whistle on immigration? Indeed, what was all that mumbo jumbo on Britishness and identity the other week about? Hasn’t Labour learned anything from previous disastrous forays into this territory?
Ed Miliband wants and needs to be seen to be offering leadership but on issues that are relevant and of the moment. These kind of perambulations on tangential issues serve little purpose, other than to annoy his ain folk and create column inches in the fag-end days of the parliamentary term. The discomfiture among Laboury types I tweet with was tangible yesterday; some of them were even so bold as to call him out, and no doubt their blogspaces are full of head-shaking despondency this weekend.
If Miliband should be saying anything right now – and that is debatable given the timing in the electoral cycle – there is plenty upon which he could be offering some long-sighted vision. In light of the cosy relationships which Leveson has exposed, there is an opportunity to spell out how we might craft a differently-oriented political society, which does not rely on cronyism and a village mentality. We might be stuck with austerity for the medium term, but there is plenty to be said about how to calibrate a more sustainable economy and a fairer society.
We have a rapidly ageing population – how do we ensure that people can continue to contribute economically and socially into older age, but at the same time be assured of dignity, respect and a decent standard of living in their dotage? England’s economy sees everything – still – sucked into the vortex that is London and the South East: how might a Labour government go about spreading the jam more evenly around the shires and regions? The measures that the Blair government put in place to address poverty – especially child poverty – are gone, probably forever, so what might a Miliband-led administration do instead?
These are the kind of far-reaching policy areas which would – crucially- carry his own folk with him, rather than stop them in their tracks. And they would give voters something to mull over as we turn the corner into the home straight towards the next UK election. Nothing should be packed with detail – yet – but sprinkling ideas around would be a useful way for the Labour leader to spend his time.
If only to give the impression of coherence. Of a leader pulling in the same direction as his party. Of a party comfortable with itself, with all its component parts and wings rowing in the same direction. Of a party which looks like it’s gearing up rather than conducting a fire sale of its assets.
Because impressions count. The longer Labour seems to be all over the place, the more doubts will grow about the quality of Miliband’s leadership and the suitability of Labour to form the next government.
Which is why the party might want to contemplate over the summer how it can say and do nothing, more and better.