Thursday, 13 June 2013

It’s not the despair Ed, it’s the hope

So, a week in which, to the great surprise of practically everyone, last week the two Eds came up with a set of policy announcements – or at least, position statements – to “get their retaliation in first” in advance of the government’s spending review. U-turning on a range of issues which they previously stood up for since January 2010 when they first formed their leadership tag team. This could just have been the week when history will remember that it all changed.

Could, not necessarily will, as we shall see.

But good things: child benefit, for example, where Balls has finally accepted the self-evident reality that if he does grant it to rich people, he will have to find a couple of billion from somewhere else, something which will hurt much more. Or the pretty-much-confirmation, by Ed Balls to Andrew Neil, of adherence to Tory spending limits, something which, ahem, Labour Uncut suggested two years ago.

The thing is, we should all be delighted. At the very least, it looks like Labour are finally getting serious about winning, they have paid attention to the polls showing that it’s not where it needs to be, as well as the election results which backed them up. It would, really, be entirely churlish to be critical at this point.

So, as regards the rest of this piece, the nice people can go home and you others, this one’s for you: all you churls out there.

One criticism is that, although the symbolism of the change is hugely important, the change itself doesn’t necessarily go far enough and is flawed in places (such as the house-building programme, as John Rentoul argues here). There are plenty more areas where things need to change.

But, fair enough, it’s a start. As the veteran MP – and welfare specialist – Frank Field brilliantly put it: “Today Ed Miliband said ‘I’m in a hole and I’ve stopped digging’. He’s now got to get us out the hole.”

The second is simple: that this may just be too little, too late. If this is the turning point, it comes more than two-and-a-half years into a parliamentary term. In other words, we now have less time to spend changing people’s perceptions than the time we have already spent letting them form the wrong ones. It will be hard. But it is possible.

The third is: do they really believe in this stuff, or are they just saying it because they think it’s what people want to hear? If they don’t truly believe it, they’ll convince no-one in the long run. Hopi Sen generously extends his belief metaphor to include the coalition as well, but it’s clear who’s the least likely to be believed:
“…with the best will in the world…any British politician standing up and swearing fiscal responsibility is, at best, like a reformed alcoholic declaring teetotalism. Even if you believe their sincerity, you don’t want to give them the key to the drinks cabinet, just in case.”
The fourth and final concern is that we cannot be sure that, even if they dobelieve it, there will not be cold feet. We cannot be sure there will not be a repeat of the exercise which happened with the announcement, January 2012, that Labour would stick with the coalition’s public sector pay freeze.

Remember that? The unions got upset, cages were duly rattled and Miliband and Balls barely mentioned it again. Will they have the bottle to follow through this time? As an old professor of mine used to say, “best indicator of future behaviour? Past behaviour”.

And it is this last reason which makes one feel the worst. Suddenly there is a little light at the end of the tunnel, a light that says there could still be a Labour government, with a majority. It is flickering, there is a gale blowing outside, but it is there.

But have we the appetite to struggle relentlessly for the next two-and-a-half years, towards something truly worth achieving, or will we dip our toe in the water and come running back again to our comfort zone?

The truth is that many of us have merely become dizzy with Labour’s hokey-cokey political journey since 2010 – now flirting with the electoral centre who can win them the election, now flashing a bit of leg to the unions. It sometimes feels like we are watching our favourite Championship team lose, then win, then lose again on its tortuous way back towards the Premiership; or that we are reading one of the less depressing chapters of John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better, on Labour’s maddeningly slow route back to power.

To paraphrase John Cleese’s desperate character in the comic disaster movie, Clockwise, it’s not the despair, Ed. We can stand the despair. It’s the hope.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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