One step forward, two steps back

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.

Four years.

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”.

Peter Watt called it the script, Dan Hodges, the narrative: either way Labour needs a coherent story.

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.

Four years.

Seems longer and longer every day.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut.


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7 Responses to “One step forward, two steps back”

  1. swatantra says:

    The Whip was never trong in the Lords anyway. Peers had a mind of their own and there’s sod all that a Party can do to remove them; too often weappoint political peers, and once apponted thy stab you in the back. All the more reason for an 80:20 elected Chamber, the 20% being non-political peers but people with expertise in ifferent walks of life, and of course they could also hol the balance of power.
    Its going to be a long haul, and if its to be a strategy it has to be a 2 term strategy back to power ie by 2020. Otherwise Oppositions have to be pretty flexible and seize the momet and the day, ie they have to react and think on their feet.

  2. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Atul,

    Things have changed since 1996 and you’ll find that some messages gain traction quicker than others dependeing on their relevance and applicability to the lives of those in the media and the public. With the introduction of internet based blogging etc i have no difficulty in explaining to many people what has occured in politics. You talk about the lack of strategy and the inability of the Leadership to grasp public feeling, but can you explain WHY this is the case.

    It is plain to many why this has occured.

    I thought the Lords did well and the lack of “discipline” as you put it would probably have done Labour some good because at least you would have an alternative even one so clumsy, it’s important to remember that an alternative position is defined by your message/narrative and helps people to understand what you are about, Blairs tough on crime and causation defined him but was also Labour’s undoing as causation went out of the window and that was the most important element. The battle that should exist currently on Welfare should be based on alternative options (I agree with the Cap incidently but there is much in the Bill that is questionable) and positions and it is simplicity itself to make a formidable position to question these changes.

    I shall not say what they are because I do not want some analyst nicking the idea and then have to endure some incompetant pompous MP using it as though they discovered this themselves.

    Its far more fun watching Labour Keystone cops.

    Labour lacks and has no direction, thats the current narrative amongst party members all over the place and no MP has had to say a single word it’s a given.

    But this is what happens when you limit yourselves to a bunch of useless snobs and la de da incestuous nepotistic cash-in whatever the consequences club as has occured.

    The public are very much aware of this, and it’s only a matter of time before you see the what Labour has become mentioned all over the media. The weirdest aspect to this is the manner in which the nepotists (who do anything even for small amounts of cash) carry themselves. They have used the Party and parliament to recruit family members in a manner no professional organization would ever entertain and the arrogance they have is just plain weird.

    It’s weird because it’s unqualified and blatently unprofessional. It’s conduct associated with the bottom level of organizations, even if you work in a bank if a member of staff begins a relationship with another one of them is moved to another branch.

    Common sense to the professional majority and these people take one look at Labour, at the PLP and one word emerges, “Orwell”.

    Irrational pigs clinging to the troughs regardless of what is occuring around them and their heads buried so deep, ensuring their relatives get in as well as to prevent anyone else, that they cannot see the real world.

    Its blatent. It’s cheap. messy and undignified. Its the modern parliamentary Labour party unaware of the digust people have watching them fatten up as they continue to show no regard for opposition or their own party that lies beyond the trough.

    No strategy beyond the feed and no interest in what others think or say, control is all important and to cling to the Shadow Cabinet Trough whilst showing the world how little they care about it to seem to be “tough” piggies in the hopes they can gain power and move to a bigger trough.

  3. Anonymous says:

    what’s this got to do with the price of a chocolate orange?

  4. Blair’s consistent message was one of hope for the future. The theme song at the Labour conference prior to the 1997 election was “Things can only get better” and so it seemed for quite a while. Thanks to the near collapse of world banking though, thirteen years of public spending extravagance and an economy that had been feeding off not a lot more than ever increasing personal indebtedness was cruelly exposed. Tax payers now face years of pain as a result. If Blair had exercised more grip over Brown this might not have been the case but he didn’t.

    By the end of 2008 the Labour party was surrounded by the wreckage of the bright promises that had made during those thirteen years and if it hadn’t been for the the exposure of the scandal of MPs’ expenses, defeat may well have been greater than it was. Peter Watt’s talk of a script is all very well but it is going to take a lot more than digging away at a government faced with terrible problems that were not of their making to come up with a sustainable change in fortunes. A majority of people won’t want to see the Labour party of old back in power. It is going to have to come up with something very new just to regain trust let alone power.

  5. Madasafish says:

    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.

    At present the Government ARE pump priming the economy. To the tune of £107Bn or so in 2011 and c £100bn in 2012. UK total government spend was c £683B so borrowing funded 15% of ALL spending.

    Labour say they are going to spend more to pump prime,, more than the Government.

    Unless they spend an extra £20 – £30 Bn extra.. the sums involved are not really significant enough to have any impact on GDP – which is c £1,500 billion.

    And an extra £30Billion would likely increase UK GDP at most by c 1%..

    And the cost over 5 years at £30b is an extra £150 bn of debt to be repaid and extra interest of c £3-4 bn every year..

    That would mean (say) if the started tomorrow UK debt would be over 100% of GDP with zero chance of repayment of even HALF for 20 plus years…

    Somehow I don’t think Labour’s policy was ever credible.. and anyone who ever thought it so was either seriously deluded or had no idea of economics or believed Ed Balls..

    Anyone who knows anything about compound interest knows that borrowing money to repay the interest on your debts is the way to insolvency..

    At present the current Government is borrowing a sum worth more than twice the interest bill.. Under Ed Balls’ former scheme it would be three time the interest bill..

    No wonder they ditched it.

    Fac it guys,,, austerity is here to stay for at least 10 years. The current Government are just playing at it.

    Here are where the biggest spenders are:

    Total Spending £683.4 billion
    Pensions £122.1 billion
    Health Care £121.3 billion
    Education £90.6 billion
    Defence £45.5 billion
    Welfare £109.5 billion

    Source:http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/total_spending_2011UKbn

    And we are borrowing £100bn a year.. some huge cuts would have to be made if we could not borrow. Hence the need to ensure the UK’s lenders have confidence in the Government’s economic policies..

  6. @ Madasafish

    And that is not including Brown’s spiffing wheeze of PFI. £68 billion of ‘off balance sheet’ expenditure; exactly the sort of thing that helped to bring the banks down.

  7. swatantra says:

    Sometimes ‘austerity’ can be a great wake up call. Really makes you stop and think what are your values. If handled in the right way we can all come out of it fitter slimmer and happier. At the moment the ‘happiness’ quotient is pretty much zero.

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