Thursday, 3 January 2013

2013: in Labour’s do-or-die year, it’s the strategy of hope versus the strategy of hopeful

The audacity of hope: it worked for Obama in 2008, and it is an important quality for an opposition to bring to the table, as Ed Miliband did in his New Year’s message last Friday.

It is fairly clear that at this point the Coalition is bringing very little credible hope to the Great British Public, although we must also accept that this situation may well have changed by 2015, as and when the economy recovers. But right now, there is clearly no light at the end of the tunnel, and this is an opportunity for Labour.

Why is this the critical year? Well, we can already see the landscape: because of the new, fixed parliamentary terms, we now know when the election will be: May 2015. Knowing this, it is all but an inevitability that there will be a very long campaign, because no-one will care about “moving too soon”. Also, it is certainly seems probable that the Tories will want to start campaigning sooner rather than later, hoping to exhaust Labour with their superior resources.

In other words, the first four months of 2015 will likely be pure campaigning, and virtually no government business (Whitehall will surely stop working quite early, given that the possibility of a change of government usually slows the Civil Service gears). And that’s if campaigning has not already started earlier, by late 2014.

So, amazingly, although the last election seems like yesterday, we are now almost in the final straight. There is 2013, and there is 2014. And that is it.

Furthermore, by 2014, the die will be cast: it will be too late to make any dramatic changes to Labour’s direction, as any such change would look like last-minute panic in the face of possible defeat at the polls. No, the grand plan, and any big changes, need to be clarified this year, or never. This is not a political statement, just one of common-sense election practicalities.

And so we come to the big question: where are we with that grand plan?

Labour has had a decent year: good party polling, strong conference speech, unifying One Nation theme. And in his New Year’s message, nearly two years after Nick Clegg’s correctly thought-out but terribly-executed Alarm Clock Britain message to Britain’s strivers, Miliband is playing smarter.

He has had a seemingly Damascene, although entirely necessary, conversion to supporting its “forgotten wealth-creators”. He is using Cameron’s out-of-touch aura more subtly, rather than waging an unappealing class war, as he tried earlier. And he is harnessing the Olympic spirit much more effectively than his opponent’s desperate attempts to claim that it was “a year that made us proud” (no, Mr Cameron, the Olympics made us proud. It was a rubbish year for your government).

Thank heavens for those advances, at least: we are slowly getting to a One Nation place, very different from the divisive “producers and predators” 2011 conference speech, so roundly trashed by most commentators. In his first election, Obama taught us the importance of hope; in the second, that “it’s the hard-working middle classes, stupid”.

Miliband, to be fair, has known this ever since his “squeezed middle” speech, but its tone was wrong. Even the phrase itself implies being the helpless victims of external forces, language which can turn off an important part of that middle class who feel that they can make their own way, if only the government will get off their backs. He is now, rightly, re-engaging with those people, which also represent a portion of his lost voters.

That said, as the BBC’s lobby staff point out here, the Budget handed Miliband “a free lunch”, one of many other Coalition failures. And to a large extent, the positive polling is arguably the result of these failures coupled with good, old-fashioned mid-term blues, not forgetting that Miliband’s personal polling is still poor. Even Labour’s positive polling at mid-term, as Peter Kellner pointed out, is not enough to point to a probable election victory (he notes that the polling should be touching 20%, not 10%, for that). And, as Atul Hatwal pointed out, no opposition has won an election without a big lead on the economy, something which Labour lacks.

It is all very well predicting an X seat majority for Labour, based on a current 10-ish % poll lead; it is also, as any statistician would tell you, arrant nonsense, because it assumes that the situation will be the same in two years as it is now.

In this mixed picture, hope can be a good cornerstone for Labour strategy. But it now desperately needs policies more than slogans. In other words, it now needs to decide whether its strategy is hope, or merely hopeful. A clue: hopeful is not a strategy.

Hope is about energising its members and supporters with a realistic, concrete programme which it will roll out, starting in two years’ time. Hopeful is to go in with slogans that sound good, scant policy meat and hopes that the Coalition will screw up just enough so that the next election plops gently into our laps without having to make any radical, applecart-upsetting changes.

Three hundred and sixty-five days. Count ‘em. That’s roughly what we have, to decide if we want either a Labour majority, or more Tory-led government. The former will require initiative-taking and agenda-setting. The latter requires merely drift.

And the third possibility, a Labour-led coalition, would arguably be the worst of all worlds. An unreformed Labour Party, not having learned any visible lessons from its time in opposition, would limp through a few years of hamstrung misery as government-by-default before being conclusively out of power for many years more. And, as any strategist will tell you, if you plan for failure, as a few are currently advocating, that’s just what you’ll get. Failure.

Hope or hopeful: at the beginning of 2013, we still have time to choose. Just.

This post first published at LabourList and selected for Progress' What We're Reading list

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