Friday, 10 January 2014

The kindness of strangers

Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Recently there seems to have been an odd acceptance by some right-wing commentators that Britain is to “sleepwalk to a Labour win”, as the Telegraph’s Matthew D’Ancona put it. It may be a genuine belief, rather than a way of giving Cameron a sly wake-up call. But if only that outcome were so sure from Labour’s current position.

On the contrary, when we look back on the third year of the Miliband project, we might struggle to see it as the success-filled year of the winning team.

For a start, any midterm year which an opposition ends with both a party and a leader less popular than at its start – as pollster
Anthony Wells has observed – can hardly be declared an unqualified success.

This was a year in which a party going on to win a general election needed to be increasing its lead in both those categories, or at least holding them firm. If the near-halving of Labour’s poll lead had been down to some kind of surge for the Tories, it could have been acceptable. But the fact that both Labour and their leader are polling worse is discouraging news.

Pollster Deborah Mattinson’s noting that
no party has ever gone on to win a majority from here is important, if not conclusive. And the answer is not, self-evidently, to simply lower our expectations and carry on as before, hoping to grasp at a deal with the Lib Dems, should such a thing one day be on the table.

When you are in a hole, stop digging, seems more appropriate. Or, put more simply, you do not tend to go down in the polls because the public thinks you are doing the right thing.

A second point would be the Syria vote: although Miliband managed to klutz it up fairly comprehensively, it is also fair to say that Cameron foolishly underestimated the lack of support in his own party. As a result, neither is cutting much of a figure of world statesman, as the bodies pile up in Syria at a higher rate than ever. “We stopped the rush to war” has a rather hollow ring to it, now it looks like the flimsiness of Western resolve means the murderer of thousands of children will stay in power after all.

And a third would be Falkirk. Yes, the general public is completely uninterested in the details of the internal workings of party selections. But through it, Labour has gifted the right-wing press an endless source of attack lines, without the Daily Mail even having to make anything up.

As a result, the public can smell weakness. They can smell when they are being sold a pup about what happened in Falkirk. And they can see a party pushed around by one trade union leader in particular, whose radical-left goals clearly remain very far from those of ordinary Britons.

Worst of all, from a man who purported to stand up to union meddling, the public can now see what looks for all the world like some frantic back-pedalling on party reform. The spring conference at which this finally put to bed is therefore likely to cast a shadow over 2014’s election season which follows immediately afterwards.

In fact, party reform could easily turn 2014 into a disastrous year. Miliband is caught between the rock of losing the vote and the hard place of watering down the reforms to the point of uselessness. And, irrespective of the political result, he could end up with an even more broke party to boot.

Even if – and it is a pretty big if – Miliband can come out of the spring conference with his credibility undamaged, what Labour needs urgently to do is pull back to the poll lead it had at the start of 2013. And, in reality, what seems more likely to happen is that it will drift further downwards, although UKIP may just temporarily save Labour’s electoral bacon by taking some Tory votes this May.

And it is exactly that kind of effect which seems to be keeping Labour hopes alive. Aside from a genuinely decent conference speech and one “big idea” on energy bills – which, as Lord Ashcroft observes in his polling released on Saturday, people like but don’t really believe will ever be implemented – far too much of Labour’s modest success in 2013 seems still to depend on events outside its control. From Osborne’s disastrous “omnishambles” budget of 2012, to Cameron’s misjudgement of his own backbenchers over the Syria vote, Miliband has often been a lucky politician, bouncing off the failures of others.

Now, it is certainly true that the Conservatives have given a fairly uninspiring performance overall during 2013. As Ashcroft further observes, they have some way to go to reassemble even their 2010 voter coalition.

But the one area which will help that, and which is starting to bear fruit for the Tories, is the critical one of the economy. The recovery may have come later than it should have, it may not be as strong as it should have been, but it has clearly come. And, if UKIP collapses as an electoral force by 2015, as historical precedent suggests it may, it may be Cameron’s turn for some good luck.

There is still all to play for. But in a pre-election year, a party must make the weather. It simply will not do for Labour to be the party which relies, like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, on “the kindness of strangers”.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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