Thursday, 7 May 2015

Five dangers for Labour as the finish line approaches

And so the election goes down to the wire.

A shaky start for Labour; then two very good weeks; and now a late push by the Tories takes us to the photo finish. The Tories look better for winning the most seats; but Labour seems to have a better shot at forming a government.

It seems that the slightest gust of wind may decide who forms the next government. But for that very reason, both parties must tread very carefully. Here are a list of five dangers for Labour as the finish line approaches.

One: UKIP collapse and last-minute swings to the Tories
While we might, as good left-wingers and non-xenophobes, be delighted to see Nigel Farage apparently getting his comeuppance, we should be careful of what we wish for. Most of the votes which disappear from the UKIP section of the ballot paper reappear as “X”s in the box marked The Conservative Party. That is, UKIP’s collapse is highly dangerous for Labour.

As Lord Ashcroft’s final round of polling in marginal constituencies shows, there is a clear swing back to the Tories, where Labour was far ahead for most of the last year. The pattern is exemplified by Croydon Central: in six months, there has been a ten per cent swing from Labour to Tory, nine of which can be attributed to a collapse in the UKIP vote. Many more cases like that and Labour is in deep trouble.

What can Labour do? Not much. Get out the vote, and cross our fingers.

Two: the SNP
Not before time, Labour has finally started to hit the SNP where it hurts: in the fundamental futility of their message, that another referendum is more important than solving Scotland’s problems. And the thuggishness of some of their supporters, on- and offline.

But they still have the capacity to hurt Labour a lot – in fact, were it not for the SNP’s unexpected surge, Miliband would probably be measuring up the rooms at No. 10 for furniture as we speak.

What can we do? More of the same. We will not do well, but we may avoid a wipeout.

Three: poor judgement calls
Some have argued that Ed Miliband being interviewed by Russell Brand, a comedian noted for previously urging young and impressionable people not to vote, was a good way to tap into his millions of Twitter followers and YouTube viewers, and claim their votes.

It was not. It was no more a good idea than Neil Kinnock appearing in Tracey Ullman’s video of “My Guy” in 1984 (lovingly preserved on YouTube here). It is always a temptation for politicians to try and borrow celebrity glamour, and sometimes it can work. But it must be managed.

For a start, the person in question needs to be a committed and reliable Labour supporter. An Alex Ferguson, say. Not one who says “don’t vote, err, vote Green, no, that’s just in Brighton, I mean vote Labour”. And next week could just as easily say “vote Monster Raving Loony”. Wooing such a person may seem like a good, short-term campaign idea. But statesmanlike it is not, and such things are important.

However, the “Milibrand” interview was nothing next to the foolishness of last weekend.

Four weeks ago, I wrote here that, although things were not going well for Labour, at least it hadn’t had a “Sheffield moment”: a moment redolent of the hubris of 1992’s fateful election rally, shortly followed by a narrow defeat for Neil Kinnock.

Oh, how premature that was. This weekend, for some inexplicable reason, someone in the leadership team thought it would be a great idea to carve out Labour’s six pledges in a big slab of stone, to be planted in either the Rose Garden or party HQ, in the event of Labour winning.

What’s wrong with that? Let me count the ways.

Hubris. Perceived arrogance in assuming a win for Labour. The sheer daftness of the idea, and the fact that there were no heads wise enough to scotch it: an idea that surely would have not occurred to David Cameron in a million years.

Oh, and perhaps someone might have anticipated the killer Twitter hashtag?


I mean, a symbolism of the graveyard is not exactly the positive winning tone we were looking for in our final days, was it?

What. Were. They. Thinking.

If nothing else, surely for someone in the kitchen Cabinet brainstorming session, the words “hostage to fortune” must have appeared in flashing neon letters ten feet high?

A stunt is something for a day, not an albatross which lasts for years. If Labour loses, as it may, the slab will inevitably become “Miliband’s folly”, a symbol of a momentary lapse of judgement, but it will probably be forgotten more quickly. If it wins, it will be worse: it will still be embarrassing the party decades from now.

And worse: what if Labour has to negotiate one of these pledges with another partywithin days? From a grand symbol carved in stone to a once-over with the Polyfilla.

Four: Gut instinct
When things are balanced on a knife-edge, people will close their eyes in the polling station and go with their gut. This will therefore be the gut instinct election par excellence.

At base, the gut needs to say “reliable, competent statesman” and not “take a chance on me”. It is a tough act to pull off in opposition but, then again, no-one said being Leader of the Opposition was an easy job.

The gut thing didn’t work for Kinnock in 1992. It needs to work for Miliband. See point 3.

Five: forming a government which lacks legitimacy
Last but by no means least: what about the aftermath? If we form the next government, it is most likely to be by the skin of our teeth, whatever the final score – and the Tories the same. But now think about the case where the majority of predictions turn out to be correct and the Tories win the most seats.

Minority government can work. But it’s one thing to do that and be the largest party. It’s another when you aren’t.

Governing as the second-largest party, rather than the largest, has been tried. But not for almost a century, and not very successfully even then (Ramsay McDonald lasted 10 months).

People will throw rocks at you, with the word “legitimacy” painted across them in big letters. The legitimacy debate has already begun. But it is a debate which Labour can only win if it is the largest party.

A weak government might have once – before the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act insisted on a two-thirds majority – led to an early election, which we could win. But it could now well end up in administrative purgatory instead: incapable of doing anything, but unwilling and/or unable to leave office. Or leaving office mid-term, to be replaced by a Tory-led government without an election. Not good.

In the case of securing only second place, Labour has to decide whether it is prepared to risk creating a fundamentally useless government, whose incumbency would be measured in days, not years. A sovereignty to recall less Queen Victoria, more Lady Jane Grey.

The alternative is for the party to regroup and bide its time in opposition, waiting for a Tory slip-up to jump in and form the next government.

All signs point to Labour going for government – it’s human nature, after all. But if we come second, we should resist that temptation. A dignified defeat is infinitely preferable to a mad scramble for power; at all costs, without legitimacy.

And that is the biggest danger of all.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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