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The strange survival of Labour England

3 February 2012

9:19 AM

3 February 2012

9:19 AM

Any CoffeeHousers with a taste for schadenfreude should read David Miliband’s article in the New Statesman. We have to move beyond big government, he declares. We need
a growth strategy. I’m not sure if any Labour leader has ever argued otherwise: maybe, as Miliband implies, it has found one now. But, as I ask in my Daily Telegraph column today, what’s worse: a
party that’s stuck in 1983, or a modernising movement that’s aiming for 1987?

But talk to any Tory, and it’s hard to find any who think the 2015 election is in the bag. Four factors should prevent us from writing off Labour’s chances:

1) David Cameron is brilliant, but just not (yet) at winning elections. You couldn’t have asked for a more open goal in June 2010, but Cameron still hit the post. He is a
superlative politician, and may yet be a transformative Prime Minister. But he is, so far, the most electorally unsuccessful Conservative PM ever.


2) Labour has a small army of MPs. Ed Miliband starts from a pretty high base, helped by the biased Westminster constituency system. Cameron will only partially correct this bias
with his wee scam to
reduce the number of MPs by 10 per cent (i.e. bring forward a boundary review).

3) Labour can still claim an intellectual leadership.
Ed Miliband may have personally decided to aim for a brighter 1970 — opposing the Gove school reforms. But, as Gove accepts, the
coalition is simply fitting rocket boosters to a Labour idea. Those ARK City Academy results I blogged about last week were a Labour success, and that day Labour should have put out a press release
saying how proud it was. Just because Ed Miliband has disowned this success, it doesn’t mean that Labour needs to as a party. These schools still stand as a monument to a reforming Labour
tradition, which can be revived under the right leadership.

4) Labour can self-correct. Look at its reticence over welfare reform. Chris Grayling is accelerating what Hutton and Purnell did before him. But Ed Miliband is not so removed from
the real world that he is unaware that the public are overwhelmingly on the side of Grayling and IDS. Labour opposition to these reforms is being muted: this is the equivalent of a flicker on the
neuroactivity monitor. The patient is not entirely brain dead.

Rather than attacking the Tories for radicalism, Ed Miliband ought to be mocking the coalition for timidity. Is this the best you can do, guys? Copy Labour reforms? Oh, you say you’re doing
NHS reform by yourself, with that clever expert Mr Lansley: how’s that going? Universal Credit — yes, we’ll be welcoming that when it arrives, if we live long enough, perhaps
along with the Mark III Nimrod and Lords reform. And what was the matter with Darling’s plan to halve the deficit over four years? Too tough for you, eh? You say you’ll do it in five
— how long before it’s six? Etc.

Given that Ed Miliband hated the Blair reforms even more than Cameron and Gove admire them, he won’t be adopting this attack line: Labour is in no fit state to see what it got right. And the
last Labour government was stymied by the likes of Ed Miliband and Balls, working against the reformers — that’s why, for all its blueprints, Labour made painfully little progress over
those 13 years. But the party itself is nowhere near as backward looking as its current leadership. The bad polling is about the leader, not about the brand (the opposite to the
Conservatives’ problem).

David Miliband is wrong to say it needs to realise why it lost: the big surprise on election night was that Labour did so well. There is no strange death of Labour England — the phenomenon
that we need to understand is the strange durability of the Labour brand. It commands loyalty that even survived the onslaught of the Brown leadership. And now Labour has a monopoly on opposition:
if you don’t like the Tory-Lib coalition, who else are you going to vote for? Add the biased Westminster system, and the bar for a Labour victory is set surprisingly low.

There is one major caveat. No political leader has ever recovered from ratings as low as Ed Miliband’s — and I don’t expect hin to either. If they keep him, then Cameron will get
a few more years out of his kitchen refit.


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