by Rob Marchant
Having had a couple of months which have not, frankly, been pretty for Labour, this is the question its leaders must surely be asking themselves in the wake of the local elections.
The question is, will they ask it of robust friends who might level with them? Or others who might well-meaningly equivocate, in the name of keeping them motivated?
First, it is easy to base our hopes of success on this or that transitory effect, but that seems rather like building one’s house on sand. There may be a UKIP effect come the election, but history has shown that such things are not usually that big. Yes, there may just have been a fundamental realignment, but things may just as easily go against Labour (Tory voters returning and narrowing the gap) as for Labour (remaining UKIP voters splitting the right-wing vote and letting Labour in). And, in any event, it is a fool who bases his strategy on the failure of others. Stop it. If there is a boost from UKIP, that’s a bonus.
Second, Labour’s poll lead is anyway soft and has been for some time, as Atul Hatwal has shown here at Uncut. Most exasperatingly, many seem to be still extrapolating that poll lead out to 2015 at the same level, when history has shown, time and again, that polls will narrow, as I wrote here, based on the fine time-series research of Leo Barasi. You cannot, and should not, judge polling on week-to-week changes, which are meaningless, but over long periods you can see trends and these are worth looking at.
Although many have compared its current situation with 1992 – when, of course, Labour lost – even that seems rather an optimistic reading; its current polling gap is also comparable with that of Labour’s in 1981, which is not exactly encouraging news, when you think how Labour was destroyed in 1983. By the way, Tory hegemony was by no means consolidated in 1981, many viewed Thatcher’s leadership as shaky and Labour maintained a respectable poll lead all through that year.
Third, the softness of the party’s positive polling in historical context becomes more deeply worrying when we look at our leadership polling in historical context. And no, before you start, this is not an agitation for a challenge to Miliband, which would be of no help whatsoever to Labour. But the worryingly low polling he is experiencing is not a help either and we should not pretend otherwise.
For those who still cling to the 1992 comparison, it is important to note from this graph at Political Betting that his personal polling is again closer to Foot’s than Kinnock’s. While we might note that Thatcher managed to win from a similarly poor position, she was unique among recent leaders to manage that trick and, as Dan Hodges pointed out a while back, Miliband is not Margaret Thatcher.
Fourth, as someone pointed out to me the other day, in the only poll that really counts – elections – Labour had a pretty disappointing result this month.
Fifth, and most worryingly, Labour seems to be approaching a moment of truth in the confluence of various political currents. The spending review is due in a month. A robust response with a reasonably well-formed alternative is required from Labour. It does not necessarily mean a fully-costed policy programme, but it means something significantly more coherent than it already has. It is being confronted by increasingly restless union backers, demanding their pound of flesh. And the Tories are looking like they may just be turning a corner.
Labour cannot live the whole parliament jumping this way and that between a populist line which the country will buy – such as on immigration – and one which will be acceptable to the three union leaders on whom it largely depends for funding. It makes it trusted by neither. It may, of course, opt for a third choice, which will not work either: fudge.
The worrying thing is that Miliband seemingly feels he has to keep one foot with the left – and sometimes even the far left – on one side and one with the Labour moderates on the other.
But that is the wrong geometry altogether. In realpolitik, Labour must straddle the gap between two entirely different vertices: an unusually assertive group of union leaders – note, not union members – who at least partly reside on the radical left, and the British people in the middle.
That is a gap that someone, trying to keep a foot in both sides of, is likely to go, as my Yorkshire friends would say, arse-over-tit. It cannot be bridged or, to use a much over-used phrase in modern politics, triangulated.
It needs a firm course, which surely will not please either group entirely but obviously needs to be more focused on the voters than the unions. At the moment it seems to waver erratically between the two. It is not even so much the exact direction of travel – at this point most of us would settle for a direction, any direction, over drift.
However much we’d like it to be otherwise, we need to recognise that, unlike this time last year, Labour’s not in a good place. Although there is always room for “events, dear boy” to change things and throw election victory into Labour’s lap, it cannot base its strategy on waiting for these.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left