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A message to the Labour Party: Get better soon…

22/04/2013

In many ways, the current position of the commentariat should be seen as a compliment to Labour: it’s not often that people can look at a poll lead of just short of ten percentage points and start asking, “Where is it going wrong?”. And yet, that seems to be what’s happening – partly because that lead was in excess of ten percentage points just a couple of weeks ago. Of course, this might yet be a blip and the lead could return to double figures rather than start to erode. But even so, things seem to have held steady at around a ten-point Labour lead for months, which suggests that not only has the Official Opposition not gained the “Big Mo”, but that it seems not to have even found a small mo. So where is it going wrong? Is it actually going wrong at all?

Well, yes, it is. The UK’s much vaunted credit rating is being downgraded by agency after agency; the economy is teetering on the brink of a triple-dip recession; the Coalition is beset by infighting; the Government’s Big Idea appears to be the Bedroom Tax.

And what of Scotland? The independence referendum is front and centre of Scottish politics, and given the state of opinion polls, the Scottish Government inevitably finds itself at a disadvantage in that it actually has to change people’s minds rather than simply get out its vote. It could do better at that: the Scottish Government gives off the appearance of making binding, quasi-constitutional decisions for the future of an independent Scotland seemingly without giving the ideas much thought or checking that their allies share their vision for a post-2014 Scotland. Moreover, the tightened Scottish Budget is making the choices required even harder to make. The Government isn’t doing badly, but it has had better periods. A strong opposition could capitalise.

And yet, and yet. Voters still don’t trust Labour to run the economy any better than the Tories, and despite having endured David Cameron as Prime Minister for almost three years, they appear dislike him less than Ed Miliband. The gap opened up between the SNP and Labour in 2011 under Iain Gray shows no sign of closing any time soon under Johann Lamont, and at the last serious electoral test, the Eastleigh By-Election, Labour’s percentage point increase only registered to the right of the decimal point. So, yes, we do need to ask where it’s going wrong.

It seems as though Labour still believe that all they need to do is watch their opponents do badly, and the voters will flock back to them. How wrong they are! If you don’t like the Coalition, yes, voting Labour, as the main opposition, might make the most sense, but there are also the Greens, Respect, the SNP, Plaid and UKIP, which exists very much on the opposite end of the political spectrum, but provides a clearer opposition to the Tories. In Scotland, opponents of the SNP might head to Labour as the main opposition, but could also switch to the Coalition parties if they were so minded; the Greens at least partially survived the 2007 electoral cull of smaller parties and are growing in local government; UKIP claim to be on the verge of some form of breakthrough in Scotland; and reports of the SSP’s demise are very much exaggerated. It’s not enough to just not be the Tories, the LibDems or the SNP.

So what’s the prescription? The Blairite assessment put forward in recent weeks is both quite correct and at the same time, very, very wrong. John Reid is correct when suggesting that voters want solutions – they can see what the problems are for themselves, so expect the politicians to provide answers. But the solution put forward by Tony Blair and his acolytes – to jump right back on the Thatcherite bandwagon – is the precise opposite of what needs to happen: if you’re offering the same thing as the other side, there is no reason to vote for you.

Yet paradoxically, Thatcher does provide the template, just not in terms of policy. Ed Miliband himself hit the nail on the head in his tribute to the former PM when he said she reminded us that ideology mattered. What, then, is his – and Labour’s – ideology?

The time has come for a new approach to politics and to government: and the Banking Crisis from 2008 saw a previously under-regulated financial sector turn cap-in-hand to the government for state aid. The bailouts and attempted economic stimulus created new pressures on public finances to which the Thatcherite answer was the current austerity approach taken by the Government. It hasn’t worked, sustained growth still seems like a distant prospect, and the banks still seem happy to reward themselves for years of failure. The alternative must have its roots in the political left and it must come from Labour: the legacy of Thatcherism can’t be erased just as it would be a foolish politician who did away with the NHS, created under Attlee. But a new approach should allow for more responsibility and scrutiny to be built into the system.

But is Miliband the man to do it? It looks unlikely: obviously you would expect details of what a post-2015 Labour government would do when there are two years of twists and turns to go until an election, but setting out what his mission would be, the broad themes and aims of that government is an absolute must. And not the ‘One Nation’ message either: I’d love for Northern England to have the same development and opportunity as is afforded parts of the South, and I’d love for the South East to enjoy a cost of living closer to the (lower) Northern lifestyle. I’d love for bank managers to actually care about their customers’ welfare and for the CBI to lay down with the TUC. But it ain’t gonna happen so it’s up to Labour to set out not what we would all wish to happen, but what they are going to make happen. All we get now are howls of protest about the Bedroom Tax followed by an uneasy silence when asked if Labour will repeal it.

And what of Johann Lamont? She has an extra year to play with as the earliest she could enter Bute House is 2016. At a time when the public is crying out for a left-leaning alternative, asking Arthur Midwinter to produce a shopping list of universal benefits to be axed seems like the stupidest thing she could possibly have done. But it could be framed in a left-wing context. After all, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was a Marxist slogan, and you have to ask if someone who was able to save for their working lifetime (and who is likely to enjoy a lengthy retirement) needs a free bus pass as much as someone who just managed to make ends meet every month for decades and, living in an area with one of the lowest life expectancies in the developed world, won’t have much time to enjoy the benefits of free public transport and personal care.

But think harder: means testing all of these previously universal benefits risks wiping out any savings to fund the new bureaucracy needed to administer them; charging for Higher Education puts social mobility for Scotland’s young people at serious risk; charging for prescriptions calls the whole free-at-the-point-of-need ethos of the NHS into question; and while the Council Tax freeze gives disproportionate benefits to the wealthy, ending it would inflict disproportionate costs on the poor. A “smite the poor to spite the rich” proposal, couched in vituperative rhetoric about Scotland’s “something for nothing” culture? Keir Hardie must be spinning in his grave.

And again, Lamont’s approach to the Bedroom Tax is little better than Miliband’s. She and Alex Salmond are locked in a circular row, with each party demanding that the other do something to mitigate the effects of the changes to Housing Benefit. She calls on the Scottish Government to legislate to ban evictions for tenants who default on their rent as a result of benefit cuts. The FM calls on Labour Councils to operate a no-evictions policy as their SNP counterparts are doing. Now, Lamont could force the Government’s hand tomorrow by introducing a Member’s Bill to ban evictions: Ministers would either have to follow her lead or oppose the Bill. Instead, SNP Councillors are introducing a no-evictions policy where they are in administration, and proposing no-eviction motions where they are in opposition, only for Labour-led administrations to vote them down.

So while opposing the Bedroom Tax, Labour won’t commit to repealing it at Westminster, they’re passively waiting for someone else to do something about it at Holyrood, and they’re actually inflicting the full force of the policy on the people they represent in local government.

But what do Scottish Labour and Johann Lamont stand for? Her speech at this weekend’s Scottish Labour Conference contained no fewer than 22 references to the SNP and 13 to Alex Salmond, and the Leader of the Party failed to get her constitutional proposals past the ‘futile forty’ – Scottish Labour’s cohort at Westminster (and successors to the ‘feeble fifty’ who couldn’t protect Scotland from the worst excesses of a government rejected time and again at the ballot box), who do at least stand for something even if it’s just the status quo.

And on the constitution, I don’t expect the Labour Leadership to undergo some sort of Damascene Conversion to independence, but I’d have thought that by now they could come up with something better than a ‘Misery loves company’ argument which suggests that the best reason for remaining in the Union is that Scotland should have to put up with a Tory government it didn’t vote for just as Newcastle and Liverpool do. Instead, more and more believe that an independent Scotland could be a beacon of progressive politics, whether it’s Labour for Independence, John Niven, or Mary Lockhart, the Chair of the Scottish Co-operative Party. Johann Lamont, by contrast, spent the weekend defending the business dealings of a Tory donor to Better Together.

Meanwhile, what Fringe event at the Conference caught the most attention? One discussing Scotland’s role in a progressive Union? No. One discussing how to counter the Scottish Green Party’s ability to pick up a quarter of Labour constituency voters’ support on the Regional Vote, and the party’s “threat to progressive politics” (should that be “threat of progressive politics”? – Ed). Not a policy discussion, or even one on how to work with the Greens. But one designed to slag them off and work out how to shaft them electorally. I wonder if it even occurred to any of the attendees that at least some of those voters might actually be Green voters first, and the trick is to keep attracting their constituency votes?

So when a Labour Leader could build a new vision for the UK and for Scotland, Labour are found wanting at every level, relying on empty buzzwords and attack politics. That’s where it’s going wrong.

Of course, it’s a bit rich for me to spend a post attacking the Labour Party while at the same time concluding that they need to stop being so negative. But here’s the thing: I’m living in England and as a resident of Lancashire, have a vote in next month’s County Elections. I’m on the left politically, so that rules out support for the Tories, let alone UKIP or any of the various far right groups active at the moment; the actions of LibDem Councillors in both Chorley and Edinburgh have left me wondering how “Liberal Democrats” haven’t run into issues with the Trades Descriptions Act (and I don’t even have the option of dismissing the LibDems in this election as they aren’t fielding a candidate); the Greens only make it onto a ballot paper in this ward for the European Elections; and obviously, the SNP and Plaid aren’t options here.

So with a choice between the sitting Tory Councillor, Labour and UKIP, the only option I have that involves casting a successful vote is Labour. I want to support them, I really do. So it would be nice if, with less than two weeks until polling day, the one party whose leaflet I actually wanted to receive, whose candidate is the one thing standing between me and a spoiled ballot paper a week on Thursday, were not the only party not to have left some visible evidence of at least an attempt at communication. Is my part of the ward ‘in the bag’? Have they given up on it?

And the thing is, I know that my personal and political journey (an SNP member living in England) might not be all that conventional, but I’m convinced that I’m far from alone in my attitude towards Labour: I want to support them. I want to vote for them. But I have no idea what difference to my life and the life of my community voting Labour will make, or even if it will make any difference at all. With no clear message, and, it would appear, no messengers in this part of the world save for a name on a ballot paper, I can’t make an informed judgement.

No, I can’t be the only one in that predicament – that would, I suspect, explain why Labour’s poll lead is starting to decline ever so slightly. Whether or not that forms part of a trend, a ten-point lead at this stage in a Parliament isn’t enough.

In fact, look at polls at this stage of every Parliament (~57.5-59 per cent of the way through the term) since 1970, and compare them to the subsequent election result, and you see two sets of trends: on average, the Labour position is overstated by just under six and a half points, while the Tory vote is understated by just over four points.

Looking at the figures another way, the principal opposition party finds its position overstated by five and a half points, and that of the principal party in government is understated by just under three and a half points.

And whichever way you look at it, you would expect the third party to have its support understated by an average of just over two and a half points. That would still have the LibDems getting their poorest result since the merger (and still the worst showing of the party and its antecedents since 1970), but things aren’t as apocalyptic as the polls suggest and a LibDem Westminster group in the low thirties wouldn’t be an unreasonable outcome.

Now, bear all that in mind when you consider Labour’s ten-point lead, and the three-figure majority that would come with it. All of a sudden, it looks very, very vulnerable. The government-opposition discrepancy sees the Labour lead cut to just one point. The party discrepancy makes even worse reading for Labour: a ten point Labour lead could turn into a Tory lead of just under one point. Now, even that would make Labour the largest party in the Commons and would probably put Ed Miliband in Downing Street. But the three-figure majority? Gone. Labour could find themselves short of a majority, at best by three seats (take out the Speaker and Deputy Speakers and assume five Sinn Fein MPs refusing to take their place, and Labour would be able to win most Commons votes without working too hard for support from elsewhere), and at worst by fourteen seats (which would all but force Labour and the LibDems into formal talks).

And here’s the worst part for Labour: as we add new polls and take out old results, and keep looking at historic polls in the equivalent timescale in previous Parliaments, we see a double whammy for Labour: in this Parliament, their lead seems to be going down; while the gaps between what historic opinion polls were saying and what actually went on to happen seems, if anything, to be getting wider. Obviously, those leads to go down – but if the past week really has heralded the start of the decline for Labour, it has come too soon.

There are those in Labour who fantasise about SNP members praying for a never-ending Tory Government as a way of boosting support for independence. I hate to burst their bubble, but I can’t imagine many SNP members preferring a Tory Government to a Labour one. Next year is next year – we all have to deal with the consequences of a Tory Government right now. And unless the Labour Leadership extracts its collective digit, regardless of what I want, what other SNP members want or what Labour supporters want, a Tory Government could well be what we get in 2015. Could Scotland be blamed for wanting to get out when it can?

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