by Peter Watt
Politically, life suddenly seems a little easier at the moment. Well from a tribal Labour perspective anyway. The last few weeks have been dominated, domestically, by stories and events that are, on the face of it, very bad for the government, and therefore good for Labour’s electoral prospects.
The economy is flat lining at best and possibly dipping into a downturn. Unemployment is rising and the private sector isn’t creating jobs as fast as the Tories hoped. And all of that before our friends in France and Germany finally decide, or more worryingly don’t decide, how to save the Euro and at who knows what cost to the rest of us. Then there is the NHS which the Government seems intent on screwing up.
I actually don’t buy into the line that says the NHS is about to implode, but what is in little doubt is that the Lansley “reforms” have been a right cock-up from the start, unnecessary at best and gratuitously stupid at worst. And then there are rising crime levels, increased levels of public and business pessimism and Liam Fox reminding people of the impression of corruption that dogged the Tories in the past.
All that and an outbreak of traditional Tory disunity. And the Government’s best asset, David Cameron, appears to have lost his mojo. A few months ago he looked very much the master of all he surveyed. He was the arch communicator beating up Miliband and schmoozing the electorate in equal measure. His internal enemies knew that they couldn’t rock the boat and so they didn’t. The last few days of Euro passion have re-kindled fond memories on Labour’s benches of the dying days of the Major government. On government benches all of the pent-up anger at an election that many in his party blame Cameron for not winning is bubbling over. Promotions over looked, personal slights and a sense that number Ten is arrogant and aloof add to the simmering resentment. It’s a toxic cocktail for a PM who didn’t actually secure a majority.
So from a Labour perspective the goal is so open that they can’t fail but score a shedload of goals. It’s not a case of what to attack them on, it’s where to start. You can feel the swagger on Labour’s side as they taunt the Tories and ignore the Lib Dems. It’s like the good old days when life was simple. A time when the Tories were just plain bad, rabid about Europe, closed hospitals and Yosser Hughes was desperate for a job in the ravaged North. It all feels very familiar, as the Tories detoxification strategy becomes infected.
And yet stop, take a big deep breath and think. What has actually changed in the last month? In fact what has changed in the last six months or even year?
A year ago the Tories had very successfully blamed Labour for all of the country’s economic woes. The public had grown tired of Labour, and the Tories blame game resonated. The voters were assisted by the Tory spin machine to see Labour as economically illiterate and worse. Labour had overseen a bloating of the public sector, all at the expense of taxpayers. They had used a growing deficit to fund their pet projects and levels of national debt were rising dangerously. Worse, they had tried to deny this was the case before the election and wouldn’t take any blame after.
The result was that the national bank account was empty and so, while Labour didn’t cause the recession, their ineptitude meant that the country was ill-prepared to deal with it. Of course the fact that there was some truth in the government’s lines on Labour did not help Labour’s cause. And every time Eric Pickles revealed another piece of excessive spending on posh hotels and fancy pot plants for civil servants it undermined Labour’s case further.
The problem for Labour is that the impressions reinforced in the minds of the electorate in the first few months of the Government have stuck. It doesn’t matter to what extent you think that the impression is fair or unfair. Much of the public believed it – and critically still do. Nothing has happened to change that impression. When push comes to shove who will the public trust? Those that spent all of the money or those that are trying, under difficult circumstances, to clear the mess up? Yes, the Tories are rowing over Europe, screwing up the NHS and so on. But as long as the public feel that Labour is not to be trusted with the economy then it won’t much matter. The shine may be coming off of David Cameron, but he is still significantly more popular than Ed Miliband. Certainly more trusted in a crisis.
So right about now politics may feel very familiar to Labour again. The Tories are bastards and frothing at the mouth Euro nutters to boot. But Labour shouldn’t get too cosy. The uncomfortable truth is that right now, in the battle of the political brands “same old Tories” trumps “same old Labour”. In other words, while the fact that the economy is still struggling isn’t great news for George and Dave, it is catastrophically worse for Labour. Oh, and it isn’t great for the unemployed or squeezed middle either.
Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.