Friday, July 23, 2010

The Problem Facing Labour

I have just got arund to reading last week's Spectator. In it, Patrick Wintour has an insightful column on the problems facing Labour during its highly uninspiring leadership contest. I was particularly struck by this passage...

...This is Labour’s problem when opposing the cuts now. Their own policy, on which they fought an election, was to halve the deficit over four years. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies demonstrated, this would mean public spending cuts, for each department, in the region of 20 per cent. Nonetheless, Labour tried to fight an election on the investment vs cuts narrative. With no credibility on the deficit, it is hardly surprising their campaign was a disaster (as Mandelson freely admits in his book).

Now Labour’s leadership candidates find that the debate has moved on. The coalition government has persuaded the public that cuts are inevitable, that Labour was profligate and had turned public spending into a false idol. The Lib-Con government is thereby absolved of all responsibility for these cuts. So when the axe starts to fall in the autumn, with the 25 per cent cuts that the Chancellor warned about in the Budget, Labour will have difficulty complaining given that their own plan was for cuts of a similar magnitude.

Some of the leadership candidates believe they can argue that Labour’s cuts would have been more compassionate, in contrast to the ideologically driven and unfair cuts being planned by the government. Some candidates are striking out to the left. Ed Balls, for a few weeks now, has been saying he regarded the Brown–Darling deficit reduction plan as too aggressive. This frees him to oppose government cuts now.

Another leadership candidate (with a better chance of winning) is, I understand, developing a similar stance on the public finances. To the all-important question — where to find that clear, red water — he proposes a simple solution. First, he would declare that the public finances are better than Labour had thought when it drew up its own deficit reduction programme. So, it can be argued, Labour’s cuts would not have been so harsh as it had previously imagine. Next, propose higher taxes, thereby reducing the need for further cuts.

But whoever is elected Labour leader on 25 September will face a substantial logistical problem. By then, there will be just four weeks remaining until George Osborne announces his spending review. It is a tight deadline on which to forge an economic policy, especially if the new leader has to wait until the results of the shadow Cabinet elections to find out who the shadow chancellor will be.

Labour's leadership contest has been very uninspiring. None of the candidates has even tried to think the unthinkable or launch a real 'change' manifesto. It's 'same old same old' from all of the main four contenders. Most of them still act as if there in government and as if the deficit hardly exists, and if it does, it's not their fault.

Compare this with the Tory leadership contest in 2005. That contest captured the imagination and lots of new ideas were batted around. It showed a party wanting to learn from its past and move on to a new future. The 'change' message was one which the party responded to, even though it knew it could be an uncomfortable journey. Ed Miliband is possibly realising this at last and adopting the same message as the Cameron campaign in 2005 - Change to Win.

But is it too late? Will anyone notice if they have been switched off already?

UPDATE: Mehdi Hasan's NS column last week is probably the best analysis of the state of play in the leadeership contest so far.


Matthew Dear said...

I think it's fair to point out that Labour have only just lost. Politicians have such hubristically large egos that learning lessons takes a very long time.

This is, perhaps, Labour's Hague*/Clarke contest (also a dry and uninspiring affair I seem to remember). We'll probably also have an IDS and a Howard before somebody new and fresh comes through and reinvigorates the Party thoroughly. There are a few of the new intake that it's definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Labourites may squeal "defeatism!" or "disloyalty!" - but I'm calling it the way I see it.

*WV: "aphresh". As in a "a fresh start"?

Mark Thompson said...

That is exactly what I said at the time about the deficit reduction legislation. Classic Gordon Brown. Gave them a (very) short term tactical fillip but was strategically very short sighted given that they must have known they would likely be in opposition and trying to oppose cuts in the coming years.

Bill Quango MP said...

Labour are in Imperial Germany's position at the end of WW1.
They lost. They lost badly. Really badly. They bankrupted the country.
However, they were able to hang on to their homeland territory.
This allowed the lie to build that the army was never defeated, that their cause was right and just and that it was only a stab in the back by 'undesirables' that allowed the allies to win.

Next up for them is a bit of bloodletting, a little time out and then a merger with the disaffected Lib Dem left to form the New Socialist Democratic Alliance Party.

NSDAP for short.

p smith said...

You can argue it another way Iain. Without any leader, Labour remain within range of the Conservatives during the latter's honeymoon period. Once they have a leader (and assuming it is not Balls), the opposition will grow stronger with a unified message. I share your view that Ed Miliband is the strongest candidate not because of his slogan but because unlike his brother and Balls, he is not tribal and was not responsible for the petty infighting that preceded defeat. I also get the impression that he is prepared to reach beyond the core Labour vote which will be necessary to win the next election.

The real issue however is what happens to the economy. Today's figures confirming 1.1% growth in the last quarter confirms that for all their faults, Labour handed over an economy that was firmly in recovery and with public finances in a better shape that was thought at the time of the election (albeit that the figures are still horrific). Thus, if the economy continues to recover then I agree that the cuts will be blamed on Labour and the coalition will get the credit for the recovery and the Tories will in all likelihood get a second term with the LibDems reduced to a rump. If however the coalition cuts take us back into recession, the blame for that will fall 100% upon the coalition as it will have proven Darling and Brown's warnings about premature cuts right (even if this is actually just a global phenomenon). I don't expect Tory supporters to accept this but believe me it will be the hook the public and the media need to turn on the coalition.

So in reality the fortunes of the parties rest on something that is not within their control.

The only certainty is that the LibDems will cease to function as a political force after the next election and that Clegg will be sporting a blue rosette either before or, at the latest, after their electoral annihilation.

Eddie 180 said...

" he proposes a simple solution. First, he would declare that the public finances are better than Labour had thought when it drew up its own deficit reduction programme. So, it can be argued, Labour’s cuts would not have been so harsh as it had previously imagine. Next, propose higher taxes, thereby reducing the need for further cuts."

Roll on... I am sure the public would love to pay higher taxes, just so that Labour can continue their love affair with a big wasteful State.

Neil said...

'Most of them still act as if there in government'


Max Atkinson said...

I agree that the Lab leadership contest is thoroughly uninspiring - which isn't helped by the ridiculously length of the 'campaign'.

But, although the Tory leadership election in 2005 may have shown 'a party wanting to learn from its past and move on to a new future', don't forget that it had taken the party rather a long time (eight years and three election defeats) to get to that point...

Alan said...

The poor darlings haven't quite cottoned on to the fact that, unlike the last 13 years, the baseline for the media is going to be what the Coalition do. Labour will have to justify why it is doing something different.

So, to put it simply, when they say they want to cut less (or spend more), we simply ask if that will be paid for by higher borrowing or higher taxes.

Borrowing is a dirty word for now, so they will have to go down the higher taxes route - not a vote-winner.

Unknown said...

None of the candidates stand a chance of leading the party for more than a few years.
The next effective leader will have to be someone from the back benches who is not tainted by Brown. They will have to rubbish Brown, Blair and New Labour and set a new agenda.

Paul T Horgan, England said...

The main feature of the Labour leadership election is that the male candidates appear indistinguishable from each other in so many ways.

So, given the above, a mixture of any two of the candidates would suffice to lead the party.

But what kind of mixture?

Using the latest morphing technologies, I have determined that the best candidate would be 80% David Miliband with 20% Ed Balls.

Want to see how?

Watch the video of the candidates morphing seamlessly into each other here:

Unsworth said...

The real problem for Labour is that they are morally and intellectually bereft.

javelin said...

Of course they are in wilderness. Just like the Conservatives were. The next leader will not get into power. I think they will have to accept that.

Tony, Gordon and Peter have totaly shafted the Labour Party.

The REALLY interesting thing is how the Conservatives and Liberals will play the next election?

It all depends on the polls ...

If the Conservatives think they can go it alone they will have a public divorce ( and then get back together if neither gets enough votes? )

If they still need the LibDems - they will bully Labout out.

If the coalition (as Merv King said) look like they will be out of power for 30 years because of the huge cuts - then Labour will take heart.

But I think the reality will be that the fall out from this recession will still be too fresh in the publics minds and Labour could be pushed out to third place.