by David Talbot
Thank goodness for the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. From her dalliance with the SDP in the 1980s to her less than ambiguous flirtation with the Liberal Democrats during the last parliament, Toynbee, clearly, has an astute eye for the British political scene. Many approach the Guardian’s flagship commentator in an almost ritual sense, as if her musings are inscribed in tablet, and come away with faith renewed in the teachings of Toynbee. In general, I do something quite close to the opposite – no more so than her remarks to the Fabians conference at the weekend.
Labour, Toynbee told the assembled throng, would have “to try quite hard to lose the next election.” Alarmingly, this is a widely held belief in the Labour party. The argument, closely echoing Toynbee’s, goes that if Cameron couldn’t win a general election against a disintegrating Labour party and a visibly exhausted, not to mention reviled, Labour prime minister – then how can he possibly win come 2015? Just about every Labour strategist warns of complacency when complacent is exactly what they have become.
It is tempting to assume that impassioned and increasingly aggressive attacks on the Conservatives are all that are needed to secure victory at the next election. After all, moral indignation is what the Labour party does. But outrage is not an electoral strategy. Emotionally and politically it may make sense to oppose each and every cut the Conservatives propose but, to repeat ad nauseam, the public are simply ahead of the Labour party when it comes to the cuts and their provenance.
To win in 2015 we need to persuade the millions of people who did not, who could not, vote for us that we are a credible party of government. The party simply cannot assume the electorate will vote Labour simply because we are not the government. Nor should the scale of the task before Labour be in any way diluted; the 2010 election was an annihilation. Labour suffered its second heaviest defeat since 1918 and was wiped out in the south, south east and east of England. But, predominantly due to the eccentricities of a defunct first past the post system, Labour retained a credible number of seats, enough almost to put us within distant of the Conservatives. Dodging a bullet is not the same as a good result, and it’s about time many within Labour woke up to that fact.
The process of reconciliation means recognising why millions turned away from us, including concerns about the nation’s deficit, and on immigration, welfare, Europe and housing too the party retains too little support from a sceptical electorate.
This is precisely the election campaign the Conservatives will fight, centred on the deficit, immigration, Europe, welfare and Miliband’s readiness for power. At the heart of it will be David Cameron, who still retains a clear lead over Miliband in terms of the preferred prime minister.
To counter this the Labour party have released their 106 battleground seats for the next general election. The ambition is laudable, though mildly absurd. A rudimentary glance down the target list will, to many a Labour activist, highlight seats that barely qualify as marginals.
Much like the Conservative strategy in 2005 of targeting some 164 Labour or Lib Dem-held seats, from the outset, Labour’s list of 106 looks woefully long and threatens to limit rather than maximise the number of Labour gains at the election. This is symptomatic of the Toynbee train of thought that the party simply cannot fail to win the next election – and win handsomely at that.
This immodesty and lack of self-reflection, this Toynbee tendency, could yet be Labour’s greatest weakness. No party has come close to winning a general election from Labour’s poll position since 1951, and there is not much to suggest thus far that this is an epoch-defining parliament. Talk of a sixty seat Labour majority is, at this stage in the cycle, simply wild. Just as many Conservatives unwisely made the assumption that Ed Miliband’s weaknesses would return them to government, so to Labour is beginning to believe that the next election is already won.
It’s still not clear that many within Labour understand the scale of the change required in the party and its policies. Assuming that the electorate simply has to come over to our way of thought is dangerously naive and electorally ruinous. Only with the emergence of a serious and credible offer will Labour win the next general election, and we’ll have to work quite hard for that.
David Talbot is a political consultant