by Atul Hatwal
Back in the mists of late 1996 I remember trotting along to Labour’s HQ, Millbank, for a meeting on first time voters.
I was a minor staffer working on the strategy for attracting the youth vote at the election. In amidst the usual sage pronouncements from assorted authority figures on the critical importance of this group, was an interesting nugget.
Based on Labour’s internal polling since the previous election, it had taken four years from when Tony Blair, as shadow home secretary, had started using the phrase, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” for the public to connect these words with Labour policy.
It’s remained with me all these years as a measure of how long it takes to make a political message stick in the real world.
Long after politicians, journalists and those interested in Westminster dramas have become tired of the same dowdy old position and moved on to newer more exciting political looks, the public are only just starting to take notice.
So why the flashback now?
Two weeks ago Ed Miliband and Ed Balls took a brave decision to shift Labour’s stance on the deficit. The policy might not have changed substantively, but as Peter Watt said this week, the emphasis certainly did.
It was the start of a long road, but at least one that is headed in the right direction. And into my head it popped – four years for Labour to be seen as the party that was tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.
Although we are only three and a quarter years off a general election campaign, with a bit of discipline and today’s more rapid news cycle, maybe, just maybe, there was a chance I thought.
Fast forward 14 days, to this week with the Lords revolt on the benefits cap and Labour’s line on the dreadful economic figures.
Despite the new financial realism, and our actual support for the benefits cap, we appear to be in favour of spending more on benefits. Yes, I know it’s all about how the cap implemented, but to the barely interested public, Labour is now defined as being against a very popular cap.
And in the face of the figures showing a contracting economy, the attack was back to “too far, too fast”.
There’s no point giving a nudge about embracing financial realism one week, and a completely contradictory wink, a few days later, that Labour would pay more out in benefits and increased spending would have saved the economy.
When Ed Miliband and Ed Balls took their first step, two weeks ago, that was clearly all that was marked on their route map back to power – one step.
If there had been anything more, they would have known something extra was needed beyond the standard “too far, too fast” as an explanation of Tory failure.
If the answer is about pump priming the economy, the party needs to be specific about where the funds are coming from and what they will be spent on.
Otherwise, not only will Labour remain trapped in the prism of trying to spend its way out of a debt crisis, after the shift in emphasis a fortnight a go, it will be caught flip-flopping harder than a pair of Romney sandals at a summer camp disco.
Three grim lessons stand out from this confusing episode.
First, there’s a perspective problem at the top of the party. No-one has a sense of how the public perceives what’s happening. If they did, then the absurdity of tacking one way then the other within days would be obvious.
What seems a measured and nuanced path to the inner circle is a crazy zig zag to the public.
Second, there is no strategy to what Labour is doing. Not looking up at the road ahead to see “too far, too fast” would not cut it as Labour’s story on the Tories following the two Ed’s shift a fortnight ago, speaks volumes about what is not happening.
Third, the absence of perspective and strategy is destroying discipline. One of the under-reported features of the benefits revolt was that Labour had put down its own Lords amendment.
But no one was interested. Not the cross-benchers, not the bishops and certainly not Labour’s own peers.
Labour’s representation in the Lords could not be marshalled to abstain on the bishop’s amendment and only back Labour’s. So there was no line. Just a parliamentary free for all.
The saying goes that a week is a long time in politics. It was never truer than when applied now to Labour’s leaders. The last time that the party held a line that was consistent and coherent for any period of time is hard to recall.
Seems longer and longer every day.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut.