Sunday, 15 May 2011

We must learn to make hard choices, or fail

There are four types of election result. Ones that are undeniably good. Ones that are undeniably bad. Ones that are on balance good, but look otherwise. And ones that are on balance bad, but look otherwise.

The most dangerous ones, obviously, are the last. There is a risk that, like an alcoholic, you don’t notice, or don’t accept, that there’s a problem.

And, excluding Scotland, we had a night that looked good. We won back a bunch of seats in the English local elections and scraped home in Wales. A mixed bag, perhaps, but respectable.

Now, Scotland was clearly a disaster and deserves a separate post all to itself (let’s be fair, it seems a problem all its own, unconnected to Labour’s national strategy). Wales, again, is a separate case. As for the positive results in England, three possible explanations come to mind.

One: a vindication of Labour policies. It’s not. This one’s straightforward: we don’t yet, by common consent, have defined policies. Ergo, it can’t be a vindication of them.

Two: the first electoral vindication of Ed Miliband as leader. It’s not. That’s not because he’s not a popular leader: it’s just too early to say. And that’s for the simple reason that most of the population, outside the Westminster and party bubbles, will still have no idea who he is and what he stands for. That’s the reality of having a relatively unknown figure suddenly come to prominence. Therefore, this cannot be reasonably seen as a vindication of his leadership.

Three: discontent with the Coalition. The only reasonable explanation: discontent was manifested with the Lib Dems in particular, Nick Clegg reprising his now-familiar role of lightning conductor for the Tories.

However, we also need to be aware of the difference between, on the one hand, giving the Coalition a bloody nose; and, on the other, giving it its marching orders.

The British public is perhaps less fickle than many people think: having elected a government, historically it tends to give it the benefit of the doubt, even if from time to time it might send it a warning shot across the bows. The Tories, between 1979 and 1997, got several bloody noses but still got re-elected three times (as, for that matter, was Labour given a good smack over tuition fees and Iraq).

In short: it’s the trend, not the surface ripples, to which we must pay close attention.

Alex Massie in the Spectator a few days ago set out a frighteningly realistic portrait of a long-term Tory strategy versus a short­-term Labour one, which warrants a close look. Apart from echoing the dangers for Labour of over-egging the economic doom scenario, outlined in a previous post, he even predicts the Tories’ future attack line for 2015 – that we failed to make the necessary hard choices:

“Labour shirked the big decisions that needed to be made when times were difficult, preferring to indulge time-served, shop-soiled shibboleths, retreating to the comfort zone of their pre-Blair incarnation when they were, as the people judged time and time again, unfit for government. They deny reality and predict disaster in equal measure. They have no answers to the tough questions”

The most sobering arguments of your opponents, always, are the intelligent ones: ones you can see resonating. This one is much more damaging than the silly, ineffectual “Red Ed”.

Leadership – ask anyone who’s ever done it – is about hard choices. And here Massie quotes YouGov: “29% of Labour's own supporters think Labour are willing to make awkward choices”, the figure dropping to a shocking 11% in the wider population. And that is a real worry, because the British people are not stupid. Our perceived lack of appetite for challenging ourselves or the country reinforces this Tory attack line: that we are telling people what they want to hear; that all this pain is unnecessary. And they, unsurprisingly, smell a rat.

Not to be trusted to make hard choices means, ultimately, not to be trusted.

To evaluate Thursday’s results brutally: if the goal we were shooting at was increasing our seats in the English locals, it was an open goal. Frankly, if we had lost seats from there, we would be back in 1983.

No, the true interpretation should be this: it is the result we would have expected if we had done nothing at all for a year. At the same time, the major shock of the night was that, despite implementing unpopular policies and making terrible gaffes, the Tories still managed to hold up. A quite extraordinary result, given the high point they were at in 2007, when the seats were last contested.

The painful truth is that our positive showing in England may buoy our troops’ morale – which we need; but it will have little to no bearing on a future general election.

It is, sadly, a vindication of nothing.

What we must learn is to make hard choices, or fail.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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