We must learn to make hard choices, or fail

by Rob Marchant

There are four types of election result. Ones that are undeniably good. Ones that are undeniably bad. Ones that are on balance good, but look otherwise. And those that are on balance bad, but look otherwise.

The most dangerous, obviously, are the last. There is a risk that, like an alcoholic, you don’t notice, or don’t accept, that there’s a problem.

And, excluding Scotland, we had a night that looked good. We won back a bunch of seats in the English local elections and scraped home in Wales. A mixed bag, perhaps, but respectable.

Now, Scotland was clearly a disaster and deserves a separate post all to itself (let’s be fair, it seems a problem all its own, unconnected to Labour’s national strategy). Wales, again, is a separate case. As for the positive results in England, three possible explanations come to mind.

One: a vindication of Labour policies. It’s not. This one’s straightforward: we don’t yet, by common consent, have defined policies. Ergo, it can’t be a vindication of them.

Two: the first electoral vindication of Ed Miliband as leader. It’s not. That’s not because he’s not a popular leader: it’s just too early to say. And that’s for the simple reason that most of the population, outside the Westminster and party bubbles, will still have no idea who he is and what he stands for. That’s the reality of having a relatively unknown figure suddenly come to prominence. Therefore, this cannot be reasonably seen as a vindication of his leadership.

Three: discontent with the Coalition. The only reasonable explanation: discontent was manifested with the Lib Dems in particular, Nick Clegg reprising his now-familiar role of lightning conductor for the Tories.

However, we also need to be aware of the difference between, on the one hand, giving the Coalition a bloody nose; and, on the other, giving it its marching orders.

The British public is perhaps less fickle than many people think: having elected a government, historically it tends to give it the benefit of the doubt, even if from time to time it might send it a warning shot across the bows. The Tories, between 1979 and 1997, got several bloody noses but still got re-elected three times (as, for that matter, was Labour given a good smack over tuition fees and Iraq).

In short: it’s the trend, not the surface ripples, to which we must pay close attention.

Alex Massie in the Spectator a few days ago set out a frighteningly realistic portrait of a long-term Tory strategy versus a short­-term Labour one, which warrants a close look. Apart from echoing the dangers for Labour of over-egging the economic doom scenario, outlined in a previous post, he even predicts the Tories’ future attack line for 2015 – that we failed to make the necessary hard choices:

“Labour shirked the big decisions that needed to be made when times were difficult, preferring to indulge time-served, shop-soiled shibboleths, retreating to the comfort zone of their pre-Blair incarnation when they were, as the people judged time and time again, unfit for government. They deny reality and predict disaster in equal measure. They have no answers to the tough questions”

The most sobering arguments of your opponents, always, are the intelligent ones: ones you can see resonating. This one is much more damaging than the silly, ineffectual “Red Ed”.

Leadership – ask anyone who’s ever done it – is about hard choices. And here Massie quotes YouGov“29% of Labour’s own supporters think Labour are willing to make awkward choices”, the figure dropping to a shocking 11% in the wider population. And that is a real worry, because the British people are not stupid. Our perceived lack of appetite for challenging ourselves or the country reinforces this Tory attack line: that we are telling people what they want to hear; that all this pain is unnecessary. And they, unsurprisingly, smell a rat.

Not to be trusted to make hard choices means, ultimately, not to be trusted.

To evaluate Thursday’s results brutally: if the goal we were shooting at was increasing our seats in the English locals, it was an open goal. Frankly, if we had lost seats from there, we would be back in 1983.

No, the true interpretation should be this: it is the result we would have expected if we had done nothing at all for a year. At the same time, the major shock of the night was that, despite implementing unpopular policies and making terrible gaffes, the Tories still managed to hold up. A quite extraordinary result, given the high point they were at in 2007, when the seats were last contested.

The painful truth is that our positive showing in England may buoy our troops’ morale – which we need; but it will have little to no bearing on a future general election.

It is, sadly, a vindication of nothing.

What we must learn is to make hard choices, or fail.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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23 Responses to “We must learn to make hard choices, or fail”

  1. Douglas says:

    And I bet, just the the Tories, these “hard choices” include further demonisation of disabled and sick people. As Ivan Lewis said:

    “‘Today, they see Labour as the party of the North, standing up for the poor, benefit claimants, immigrants and minority groups,’ he said.”

    Yes, how awful it is for a party to support and stand up for the poor, sick and disabled people, ie., the weakest members of society. This article reads as more of the same to me – acting tough for the benefit of the tabloids and right-wing media. Sorry, but some of us have these things called principles – where we stand our ground no matter what people think. And in my mind, there are not many things that are more noble than standing up for and defending the rights of the weakest.

    Of course, Labour did attack the sick/disabled people while in office. As a very sick person myself, this is another reason why I don’t think I can ever bring myself to vote Labour again.

  2. eastender says:

    The SNP triumph, Labour’s relatively good progress in England (dont forget more than half the 800 or so gains were from the Tories) and the Tories gains were all basically down to one thing, a complete collapse in the LD vote. That is not to say that Labour does not have issues to address – especially in Scotland. As Luke Akehurst has pointed out in many English local authorities it was simply not possible for Labour to have done any better and it is difficult to see how much better we could have done in Wales.

    Given where we started, outside of Scotland, this was a very creditable performance. Yes far more work needs to be done in some areas of the south (crudely our biggest weakness last year was the “white van man” demographic typical of SE England where the results were not as good as elsewhere) but it was a good start. We must be very careful not to play up the media narrative of a bad night for Labour, outside of Scotland, it simply wasnt. The gain of 800 odd seats was better than any year recently except for the annus mirablis of 1995 , yes we started from a low base but also due to a reduction in the number of councils there are now less seats to actually win. The percentage for Labour was better at any local election than anytime since the Tony Blair honeymoon.

    The are clearly perception issues with Ed M but some of that is simply down to being leader of the opposition, a thankless task at the best of times. Dont forget how Cameron struggled and he had a basically friendly media. The right wing media are more than happy to push the line that the economy was in complete meltdown when the coalition took over, it wasnt but changing that perception is going to be a tough ask for Ed M & Ed B but will have to be done to withstand the scrutiny that a GE campaign will bring.

  3. Matty says:

    I agree a lot with with Douglas but as Rob evades what he means exactly by a hard choice of course he can always come back to say oh no I don’t want to hit benefit claimaints. Come on Rob what do you mean by a hard choice?

    By the way, interesting article here http://duncanseconomicblog.wordpress.com/2011/05/11/there-goes-the-vat-rise-or-what-the-todays-numbers-say-about-the-deficit/
    The Tories “hard choice” of raising VAT looks like reducing growth and thereby increase the deficit. As one of the commentators there says “All you can really say is: Keynes was right. The last thing you want in a recession is for people to stop spending. Or for the government to stop spending. We have economic idiots running the country.”

  4. Rory says:

    I feel we need to give Miliband time and his message will ressonate with the public. The main qualms with his leadership seem to be centred around his voice and appearance. I feel he is doing the right thing in looking at the long-term direction of the party as opposed to short term poll popularity. We must not be complacent about the task ahead and we will need to do more than simply win over disillusioned Lib Dems.

    I’m 16 and a young Labour activist and have just started up a new blog. It would be great if you could have a look and I’d really appreciate it if you could feature it on your blogroll. Many thanks:

    http://a-week-is-a-long-time-in-politics.blogspot.com/

  5. BenM says:

    Tory “hard” choices aren’t really hard. Not when you have 70pc of the press and several business organisations goading you into delivering ideological purity.

    Moreover these “hard” choices do not equate to the right ones, as we’re finding out on the economy.

    It’s actually much harder to rein in the neo-liberal consensus that has dominated our economic thinking these past 30 years (who is making that case? Isn’t that therefore “hard”?) and has delivered us all to the edge of the financial abyss.

    There is plenty of beef behind the policy of maintaining spending to secure the growth which is the only thing that will bring down an unsustainable deficit. But you need a level headed down to earth message that is easily understood to go with it. And this is where Labour is really failing.

    Politically it has simply lost the knack.

  6. iain ker says:

    ‘This one is much more damaging than the silly, ineffectual “Red Ed”.’

    *******************************************************

    I agree entirely with the proposition that Red Ed is silly and ineffectual.

  7. iain ker says:

    Oh, now I get it, you were saying that *calling* Ed Miliband, ‘Red Ed’ is silly and ineffectual, not that Red Ed is silly and ineffectual.

    My bad.

    Whereas having weeping paroxysm of fauxtrage when the Prime Minister tells some shrieking banshee to ‘Calm down, dear’ and calling the Prime Minister ‘Flashman’ is… is… er… something.

  8. @Douglas, Matty: I think you have maybe misunderstood the point of the article. It’s not about any specific policies, and certainly not about benefits at all. It’s about Labour deciding on viewpoints which are right, rather than those which play to our own gallery. Almost all the positions we have taken over the last year have been those which play well within the movement, but are not necessarily either right or attractive to the electorate as a whole. (If you disagree, I’d like to hear some counterexamples, as I can’t think of any.)

    @eastender: I have to say that a creditable performance, in harsh electoral terms, it was not. If we cannot win back a few hundred council seats in the middle of the biggest cuts programme post-war, then there’s something seriously wrong. That’s not to mention that if a Scottish result like that were replicated at a general election, we would be destroyed.

    The third, final and most important issue was that, despite winning the seats back which we had to win back, we abjectly failed to take seats from the Tories. And therein lies our only hope of winning a general election.

    I know this is all a bit unpalatable but, living through the 1980s, when we constantly made excuses for our performance, makes you think twice about a generous interpretation of poor results.

  9. Henrik says:

    Comrades, it’s not good enough to keep blaming the right-wing press for the fact that folk don’t seem to be listening to you. The right-wing press, which is actually nothing of the sort, but rather another business constituency, whose aim is to maximise shareholder value by keeping the context within it operates benign for its purposes (see here Guardian group tax dodges), is a fact. Deal with it. You were going to lose catastrophically in 2010, whatever News International said or didn’t say; it’s a shame that Nick Clegg’s superior TV skills created an artificial bounce for the Lib Dems, but, hey ho.

    If any party should understand its operational context, Labour should. Do a SWOT:

    Strengths:

    Strongly tribal powerbase in Scot- er, the North of England
    Financial and operational support available from the trades unions
    A Party machine at local level which is capable of flashes of real inspiration and competence
    Current constituency boundaries significantly advantage the Party

    Weaknesses

    A reputation for mendacity and incompetence
    Financial and operational support available from the trades unions
    Perception as a party of the public sector and Islington luvvies
    No policies
    13 years in government culminating in abject failure after too many wars

    Opportunities

    Reconstruction of the local Party machines countrywide and actually including them in strategic and policy thinking
    Crafting of a coherent, attractive narrative which might actually persuade folk to vote for them

    Threats

    Groupthink
    Loss of connection to the electorate
    Continued flailing around in a policy vacuum
    etc

    There is not a symmetry between Labour and the Conservative parties in terms of context. The Tory SWOT looks very different – for example, with Scotland now having gone all Braveheart and ‘gimme the money, ya bass’, the Tories can relax considerably, if the SNP are half as competent this time ’round as they were in their last term, Labour’s stranglehold on Scotland is dead, dead dead.

    The Tories may still be thought nasty, but perhaps folk think the times call for a nasty party – and remember that Labour, while in government, proved itself to be irritatingly illiberal in many ways which just annoyed people, for no conceivable benefit. News flash, if the Tories are perceived of as nasty, that doesn’t mean folk think you guys are the nice ones.

  10. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    For once I largely agree with this.

    But it’s not just the hard choices we need to make. It’s any choices at all.

    We aren’t going to win an election unless people have reasons to vote for us, which means we need actual policies that are clear, concrete and capable of connecting.

    What we have right now is a bunch of policy reviews and a few promising speeches that still failed to rise above wonk-speak.

    That rapidly needs to be turned into something we can try to sell on the doorstep, or the only way we’ll win an election is if the Tories lose it by blowing up the economy big time. Which isn’t something I’d bet my life savings on.

  11. Amber Star says:

    Labour’s stranglehold on Scotland is dead, dead dead.
    —————————————————
    Until you look at the polling for Westminster elections: Then Labour is ahead, ahead, ahead.
    😎

  12. JohnB says:

    Rob, if you can’t be specific about these ‘tough choices’, it’s hardly surprising that some of us suspect another attempt to bounce the party into a right of centre, low tax/small state position. I suspect something else, though – you don’t care what the choices are, as long as they look tough. Your interest is not in policy but in marketing. Anyone who thinks, as you appear to do, that our position on the biggest issue of all, the economy, has simply been devised to please the faithful, clearly hasn’t been following the debates amongst economists. BenM is quite right about this – I suggest you do some reading. Just because the coalition have been better able to get their message across doesn’t make their policies right. Buying the right detergent may not matter too much, but getting the right economic policy does matter – it’s not just a marketing strategy for a political party, it’s about the future of the country.

    Unlike you, I do not consider these results catastrophic. I would not have expected an electoral revival only one year after such a big defeat. There are only two reasons why such a revival would happen. Either Labour would come up with some big new idea which would capture the imagination of the electorate and sweep the country – after one year? Dream on. Or the voters would realise they didn’t like what the government was doing. This applied to many former Lib Dem voters – not surprisingly as the party they voted for last year was perceived as offering rather different policies from the ones it is now implementing. But the 2010 Tory vote was relatively low, so probably almost all of those voters expected and believe in the current Tory policies – that’s why they vote Tory. So why would we expect them to change sides at this stage of things? Scotland is a different case, but isn’t it rather patronising to assume that Scots were voting in order to pass judgement on a Westminster government, when in fact they were electing a government of their own? Amber Star’s post is very pertinent here.

    None of this means that we should just sit and wait for the government to fail, or that we don’t need to think pretty hard about what we are here for – as after every election defeat. But I don’t see conceding policy ground to the coalition when we know they are doing the wrong things is a plausible way forward.

  13. @BenM: to be clear, I don’t mean hard choices as in those which cause us pain (such as the Tory cuts). I mean hard choices as in those where we have to push against some resistance, rather than an open door (could just as easily be an increase in a particular budget as a decrease). Taking positions which are not hard choices results in the path of least resistance, and ultimately political failure. My point is that we are not making any such decisions currently.

    @Rory: I know where you’re coming from, but I’m afraid giving time to the same message is unlikely to result in people coming round. Of course I’ll take a look at your blog.

    @Iain Ker: you can do much better, Iain: if you’re going to troll, at least troll wittily.

    @Henrik: there’s a lot of your SWOT analysis I agree with. I certainly don’t blame the right-wing press, in fact, as I’ve observed before, complaining about them is “like a sailor complaining about the sea” (Enoch Powell). My only quibble is that on Scotland, while we have no margin to be complacent, we need also to be aware that Scottish voters have shown themselves to vote very differently for Scottish and Westminster elections. We still have a decent chance of rebuilding if we grasp the necessary reforms to the Scottish party and message. Here I think Ed has moved well.

    @Edward, agreed, we need to get some policy meat, soon.

    @Amber Star: agreed, as per my comment above. However, there’s no reason to be complacent. Scottish Labour is a mess right now, and we largely swept under the carpet the signals which have been there for some time. I’m afraid GB’s “sheltering” of Scottish Labour (i.e. preventing the national party getting too involved) over many years probably did not help matters.

  14. Henrik says:

    @Amber Star: Let’s wait and see, by 2015 the map will have changed considerably – in terms of constituencies, in terms of the Scottish-English relationship and in terms of Scotland probably having had a thoroughly competent SNP government for four years – why would they vote Labour, for sentiment?

  15. @Henrik: no, to beat the Tories, of course. Scots don’t like us much at the moment. But find me a Scot who admits to wanting a Tory government in Westminster. I’m not saying that’s a great reason why we should get votes, and we need to have a far better argument than that. But it’s a historically accurate one.

  16. Henrik says:

    @Rob: of course, there’s a distinct possibility that the Westminster Parliament will be as relevant to the Scottish voter in 2015 as the Danish Folketing is to him today….

    It’s going to be interesting to watch the party which single-handedly created the Devolution Death Slide To The End Of The Union campaigning on a Unionist ticket, while the Conservative & Unionist Party is conflicted, in that their strategic advantage is for Scotland to bugger off out of the Union and be some sort of Caledonian Estonia, while their avowed heart is with the Union.

    I imagine cooler heads will prevail North of the Border, though. If the UK government holds a binding referendum on independence and the pro-separation crowd lose convincingly before 2015, I grant you there’s a possibility that Labour may not lose too many Parliamentary seats in Scotland. Of course, new constituency boundaries and a reduction in the number of seats overall will have done much to eliminate the Labour advantage by then.

  17. @Hendrik: Right that Westminster has receded a lot in Scots’ minds. However, could also be argued that the less people think about casting their vote, all the more reason to use it to punish the Tories rather than voting on policies.

    Disagree entirely about the Tories being conflicted. No Tories want secession to happen on their watch, full stop. They would be vilified forever in their own party.

    Cooler heads, I think, will indeed prevail in the end. Check my piece at Left Foot Forward which will be up today or tomorrow explaining why I think this is the case.

  18. Amber Star says:

    @ Rob Marchant

    You are spot-on about Scotland. And, as well as Scots still being likely to vote Labour for Westminster, there is an opportunity to do better than ever before because Dems & even a few Tories actually moved to Labour in Scotland. So, if we can win back our own supporters without losing the new arrivals, Labour could do better than ever in Scotland.

    Add to that: 58% are against independence, only 29% for. Labour have a once in a life-time opportunity to provide a compelling vision of Scotland’s future within a United Kingdom… a vision that can be entirely in keeping with our core belief that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.
    😎

  19. @JohnB: not only have you inferred and “suspected” a great deal from the article, seemingly without any evidence – nowhere have I suggested “conceding policy ground” – you seem to be in denial about the results. They are not catastrophic, I would agree. 1983 was catastrophic. But they are clearly not at all good.

    @Amber Star: Thanks. I agree, there is all to play for in Scotland, as long as we make a serious job of reforming the Scottish party. Here – credit where credit is due – I think Ed has acted well. I think we also agree on independence, that it is by no means the probable outcome, although we shouldn’t be complacent. Tomorrow I will publish an article at Left Foot Forward explaining why.

  20. Henrik says:

    @Rob & Amber: I’m looking forward to Rob’s piece on LFF explaining exactly how Scottish Labour plans to defend the Union. If they devote their usual competence and integrity to the task, Wee Eckie won’t have to leave his fireside to see a 90% turnout and 80% ‘yes’ vote.

    @Rob: I expect we’re hearing different things from inside the Tories. I’ve talked to many who embrace the idea of an independent Scotland, partially from a rather cynical expectation that it’d be a disaster for Scotland, partially from a knowledge that an independent England would be Tory for ever. I don’t think that’s the PM’s view, necessarily, but I rather think you’d find the idea had some resonance around parts of the Cabinet table.

  21. Ok finally found my LFF piece went up on Saturday! It’s not about how we defend it, rather why I think it’s unlikely to happen.

    I’m sure there are indeed different views within the Tory party. But would be surprised if many in Cabinet, as they would be turkeys voting for Christmas as regards their own political legacy. They would be forever remembered as the government who broke up the Union (whether it was actually their fault or not). That said, people do not always realise what’s in their own best interests 😉

  22. Henrik says:

    @Rob: it’s all in the symbolism. If an independent Scotland kept the monarch as head of state and maintained the Scottish element in the Armed Forces (thus also keeping the lucrative Defence Estate committed in Caledonia), I suspect pretty much everyone would be happy with that – the sentimental and military elements of the Union would remain and everyone could just get on with their lives 🙂

  23. Euclid says:

    This is an excellent article and totally on point.

    However your main problem as a party is its not your policies which are the problem – its the economic devastion in implementing them that Labour visits on the country every time its in power. Governments are some 30% more wasteful than private business. Couple this with the fact thats it not their money that they waste, and Labour in particular appear to revel in finding new ways to piss taxpayers money away. Is it any wonder the Tories actually gained seats? People have realised that the Balls And Brown era was one of stupendous financial recklessness with taxpayers money. Until you can show that in future that tax and spend is no longer the underpinning of your policies, it will not matter how attractive they look – the UK electorate is never going to forget just how badly you left the countries financies in 2010.

    Here is free tip: get a shadow chancellor with some actal business experience instead of a scheming, self-aggrandising, smearing, career politician.

    And before the naysayers come back in eulogising Browns record:
    UK debt end 2001 : £385,5 billion
    UK debt end 2002 : £402,9 billion
    UK debt end 2003 : £441,1 billion
    UK debt end 2004 : £487,9 billion
    UK debt end 2005 : £529,4 billion
    UK debt end 2006 : £573,3 billion
    UK debt end 2007 : £618,4 billion
    UK debt end 2008 : £750,3 billion
    source ONS ….

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