Is Labour doing well enough?

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


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15 Responses to “Is Labour doing well enough?”

  1. David Bradley says:

    You still don’t get do you trust in politicians from all party’s are at a all time low most people see them as professional politicians who are shallow and opportunistic.
    The one thing Politics ought to be above all else is honest but unfortunately it’s not it’s full of spin and half truths and when that fails, lies it doesn’t matter if you’re a Conservative Liberal Democrat or labor, party mantra comes before any sort of national interest.
    You only have to look at the expenses scandal to see how far apart mps really are from the voter in the street when it blew up in their faces most of them said “it’s ok i have paid it all back and it was just bookkeeping errors anyway and we are sorry” and then a few sacrificial lambs were thrown in to the courts in the hope that that would keep everyone happy.
    So people look at Ukip and think yes a lot of what they say makes sense so what the hell all the others lie anyway so let’s give them a go

  2. Robert says:

    Labour is getting less than 40% of the vote, which means that a Labour majority is unlikely even when the oddities of FPTP are taken into account. However, a Tory majority is even more unlikely and a Tory landslide like 1983 is virtually impossible. A hung Parliament is the most likely result, which is not bad when the low Labour vote in 2010 is considered. My personal view is that a coalition is likely to be more left-wing than a Labour government with a majority.

    Rob is right to say that Labour’s stance is vague but the real problem for him is that it is clear that Ed Miliband has moved Labour away from the New Labour era. A return to that era is not an option for Labour, because it would lose my vote for a start.

  3. Red Rag says:

    Why do people continue to quote Dan Hodges as if he is the fount of all knowledge? For god sake, he works for the Tory Press and spends all his life either slating the party or brown nosing Cameron. He is not even a Labour supporter any more. Why not go the whole hog and start to quote Dan Hannan on the NHS?

  4. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Hi Rob

    As a respectful opponents please allow me the opportunity to illuminate you. Firstly Ed Milliband failed to create the unifying narrative that would draw lots of ambitious and lets be honest, the most greedy and influential people within the Labour Party together. That is important. Snobbery and stupidity and arrogance don’t make a working narrative.
    Secondly he failed to use the narrative as a framework to develop a strong policy model because he never had the foundations he does not have the trunk, roots and branches so to speak.
    Thirdly as a result of more greed, stupidity and delusional arrogance Ed failed along with the Parliamentary Labour Party to deal with the issue of serious political decline (I believe Mark Ferguson Labourlist is commenting on the UKIP event as though he would be discussing say a Lib Dem Party threat rather than what it actually is) there has been no effort whatsoever and if anything more contempt shown by Labour to the General Public by refusing to acknowledge beyond lip service the problem and ways of addressing it. No Labour Mp has even attempted to address this problem or indeed for that matter (after my departure from the Party) any Councillor elect.
    Labour Uncut correctly identified Labours very tentative soft lead which is now beginning to peter out and this is great news for the public and for democracy and therefore its great news for people who are not represented in Parliament such as the poor and the “squeezed” middle as Ed Milliband names them.
    Labour is about to face it’s greatest challenge since its creation as a Parrty and this period is not comparable which any period in the past 50 years. Because the reality with exception where campaigning is very strong indeed (not sustainable though through lack of the aforementioned narrative) is not needed. It performs no role. In fact in times of austerity Labour politicians at National and Local level have either been tottying up to the city, with millionairres, or giving their Union cronoies special jobs and wages and using and abusing public money for a celebrity lifestyle whilst the mainstream majority have been very hard hit.

    That Rob is why Labour is screwed. Because so far I and my Party, the cynical truth, the political establishment that we get whatever we vote for, the Conservatives have yet to even begin showing the public what Labour has been “doing” in opposition.

    The Press Labour tried to silence, the democracy Labour has continually attacked, the legacy of Tower Hamlets and the BNP and soon UKIP in greater numbers than ever, it really is just beginning and many people who Labour has betrayed will be looking forwards to it.

  5. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    Apologies should read: Labour is about to face it’s greatest challenge since its creation as a Party and this period is not comparable with any period in the past 50 years. Because the reality with exception where campaigning is very strong indeed (not sustainable though through lack of the aforementioned narrative) is that it performs no role. In fact in times of austerity Labour politicians at National and Local level have either been tottying up to the city, with millionaires, or giving their Union cronies special jobs and wages and using and abusing public money for a celebrity lifestyle whilst the mainstream majority have been very hard hit.

    And so Rob like the Left in other parts of Europe, if not all of the European continent Labour cannot be both savior and tyrant, like Saruman the many-coloured the Party has been found fraudulent and clumsily and blatently fake. It is a far better thing to be a Conservative seeking to try and get people to look out for the poor and the underdogs than to be ashamed and within a Party that masquerades the mask of morality whilst committing the same acts of grotesque public betrayal and hypocrisy in an age of communication were few secrets remain secret for long……. and so where appalling Corporate Claw of Corruption resides behind every false noble gesture and shallow PR release.

  6. @RedRag: Comrade Hodges, for all that one may disagree with him from time to time, has the great advantage of being funny.

    You, on the other hand, do not appear to.

  7. Allan says:

    The answer to your question is no. The reasons for that can be summed up in the well worn phrase “It’s the economy stupid”.

    Firstly, while Labour were in mourning for the lost Election, they should have been formulating a crediable alternative to Gideon’s “Scorched Earth” policy of Austerity. Indeed it has been clear to myself since before the Westminster Election that Scorched Earth was never going to work – it would kill the UK economy by destroying demand before any reduction of the deficit would happen.

    Milliband’s first nine months as leader should be viewed as lost months, months where a viable saleable alternative to Scorched Earth was formulated. Instead we have a shadow chancellor that has signed up to Austerity and a shadow Work & pensions secretary who refuses to rule out scrapping “The Bedroom tax”.

    Still, it could be worse. At least he’s not Joanne “end of universal benefits” Lamont…

  8. Red Rag says:

    @Rob Marchant – “has the great advantage of being funny”. Slagging off the party and leader 24/7 via Tory rags and twitter, writing for The Mail and Telegraph, and being an all round swivel eyed right wing loon….oh I think is bloody hilarious.

    “Comrade Hodges”, a bit like Comrade Hannan, Comrade Tebbit and Comrade Thatcher. You can tell a person by the people they hang around with, next time you speak to Dan, ask him how is his little meetings with Lynton Crosby are going.

    “The Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest”…..he flew the nest of the Labour Party many months ago, it seems some of you, just like with Blair, are struggling to let him go.

  9. john P reid says:

    Redrag, he backed Boris for mayor while voting for Labour for the Assembly, he writes for the Telegraph and Occasionally News statesman, and yes about three quarter of the articles he has wrote about Ed miliband have been critical, but he’s still Labour,I quote Ken livingstonr aoccasionally, Livingstone didn’t back Labour for the mayor of Tower hamlets, and wrote a column in the sun upto 1997,when It was A tory rag, If you don’t like Rob quoting Ken why do you read this, Not all laobur supporters have to read every blog associated with us,

  10. Lynne says:

    I would agree with what Allen says.

    I would dearly like to vote Labour at the next election, but I haven’t seen them come up with alternative policies to austerity. You only have to look what’s happening in Europe to see austerity isn’t working.

    Why is Liam Byrne shadow work & pensions secretary? He is disliked and distrusted by disability groups. I assume it’s because he is equally ruthless as IDS in attempting to cut welfare. This won’t be lost on the poor, the sick and disabled.

  11. @Allan, @Lynne: I must admit I don’t see where Balls signed up to austerity. While I wouldn’t say they are right, most of the country is bashing him for not being tight enough on fiscal restraint, while you are arguing the reverse.

  12. paul barker says:

    As an outsider (Libdem) Hodges strikes me as fanatically loyal to the The Labour tradition, thats why hes so angry. He sees the Party he loves dying & cant do a thing about it.
    I note that of all the comments disagreeing with the article none are arguing against the statistics. There is an accumulation of polling evidence from all sorts areas that suggest 2015 will be closest to 1983, for Labour. The Tories have their own problems.

  13. Allan says:

    Rob.

    He signed up to Austerity during the last two Conference speeches.

    ” A steadier, more balanced, medium-term plan to get the deficit down will still mean difficult decisions and tough choices in the years ahead that any government will face. Tough choices on tax and spending – like the cuts to welfare, education and Home Office budgets that we set out before the election.

    Discipline in public and private sector pay.

    And no matter how much we dislike particular Tory spending cuts or tax rises, we cannot make promises now to reverse them.” – 2011

    “We cannot make any commitments now that the next Labour government will be able to reverse particular tax rises or spending cuts… as I said to the TUC, we must be upfront with the British people that under Labour there would have been cuts and that – on spending, pay and pensions – there will be difficult decisions in the future from which we will not flinch.” – 2012

  14. @paulbarker: A very intelligent observation, Paul. My good colleague Dan is someone who is steeped in Labour (apart from his family connections, he worked for the GMB, for heaven’s sake). He is unrepentantly tribal. We need to ask ourselves the question, why would someone who loves the Labour Party feel that way?

    And regarding the stats, yes, it’s pretty hard to disagree with the figures because they are pretty clear. You may need a little basic understanding of stats, trends and causality not to be tricked into the easy conclusions (e.g. extrapolating from a mid-term poll lead to an election), but even then, only a fool would think we are cruising to an election win at the moment. We may not be looking at a 1983 scenario in the end, but something will need to change (either a marked change of Labour direction or a Tory/LibDem meltdown).

  15. @Allan, I don’t know how you manage to interpret that as somehow being signing up to a Tory agenda, but understand this: the vast majority of the country feel the opposite about Labour, and poll after poll shows it. We are not trusted on the economy, and it’s certainly not because they believe we don’t want to spend enough.

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