by Peter Watt
I don’t know what’s wrong with me this week. I just feel miserable. I have even got to the point that I can barely be bothered to tweet, and that really is a bad sign. But why am I feeling flat now? I mean, for months now, I have been worried about what seemed to be the direction of travel of the party with dog whistles to the left. For months I have worried that the outcomes of the party reform debate would be a damp squib. And for months I have worried that we seemed to be all but leaderless.
So on that basis, surely in the last few weeks things have started to look up? Ed has begun to define himself and his philosophy of “social justice with a hard edge” and an end to the “take what you can culture”. And he has shown real leadership on party reform by demanding an end to elections to the shadow cabinet and hinting at reforming the relationship with the trade unions. For me, these still don’t go far enough and probably could have, and should have, been said months ago. And, crucially, we still have little or no credibility on the economy.
But it absolutely has to be welcomed, and with four years to go until the next general election it is a start. Despite some people feeling uncomfortable about the new approach, on the whole the party seems buoyed after a difficult few months. David Cameron has looked rattled at PMQs and the U-turn taunts hurt because they reflect a very real problem for him and his government. We can probably relax just a bit until conference season. The beach beckons.
So, why then am I miserable now?
It is because we are so bloody irrelevant.
I think that I have only just noticed, but the fact is that most people are not listening, not looking and, quite frankly, don’t care about us. We are in opposition – we are just not where the action is. This “revelation” came to me last week when I was taking my usual constitutional (a couple of pints) at my local. There is a group of regulars who always have a chat, put the world to rights and enjoy playing on the quiz machine, and on the whole they are pretty good at it. But last week one of the questions was, “What is the name of the leader of the Labour party”? They didn’t know the answer. I was stunned. Surely they should know? But then again, on reflection, why should they?
The Labour party plays no part in their lives. It has no effect on them, so they don’t even think about us. Who cares about who the leader of the Labour party is? They know who the government is, the prime minister and Nick Clegg. They know who the new manager of Chelsea is (André Villas-Boas, if you’re interested) and that the price of petrol is a rip off. They are grateful that we’re not Greece, “know” that Labour screwed the economy and that most jobs are taken by foreigners. But the leader of the Labour party? Nope.
To a very large extent this is inevitable. It will change as we get closer to a general election when people begin to think about the choice that they are about to make. But right now we are all but invisible. And although I know that this is inevitable, the fact of it makes me miserable. I spend so much time arguing and worrying about things that just don’t really matter at the moment. I was excited that Ed is going to end elections to the shadow cabinet – and the pub quiz machine gang were ecstatic (that was irony). I enjoyed the social justice with a hard edge speech – and the guys in the pub just hate scroungers. I have found myself, once again, reflecting on the bizarre nature of politics, in which we aficionados seem to operate in another universe to most of the rest of the world. I have found myself questioning whether the time and energy I spend in the political bubble is really worth it. I might be able to answer the who is the leader of the Labour party question. But I’d probably struggle on show business and music.
So where does this leave me? I’m not sure. I am sure that the miserable feelings will subside; I’m an optimist at heart. But I hope that the questioning of what is really important does not. It seems to me that if we are to be ready for that fleeting moment when we become noticed, then we need to do a lot better at being relevant. While what we do and say now is not being really noticed, it is though building up a sense, a feeling of what and who we are. It is sending signals about who we are favour and whose side we are on.
The last few weeks have been positive, but we need to be honest that at this stage no one outside the political world has noticed. We are and will remain pretty irrelevant to the debate for some time to come. Suddenly the general election seems a very long time away.
Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.