Please, no more “zen socialism”

by David Talbot

August, clearly, was not quite the sojourn the Labour leader no doubt dearly wished it to be. The hitherto unheard of George Mudie, apparently the MP for Leeds East, initiated the dreadful barrage that was to be directed at the Labour leader over a fearsome few weeks.

Pilloried from left to right, upon his return Miliband was attacked in a different form when a disgruntled bystander threw an egg as he sauntered round a south London market. Amongst the many reactions was the question of “why?” – it was in itself a surprise to many that a member of the public had formed a sufficient enough opinion of Miliband as to be angry.

For the Labour’s leader’s strategy has been personified by that of the forever being the tortoise, and certainly not the hare, on the path to 2015. It has been eloquently articulated as “zen socialism” and, astonishingly, really is the only “-ism” one can apply to Miliband nearly three years into his leadership.

“Zen socialism” first troubled the English language in the aftermath of Labour’s bloody leadership election. In those troubled days the strategy had an ounce of sense; Labour had just been crushed in the general election and had subjected itself to a ridiculously long internal election that had split the party in two.

A sustained period of quiet reflection seemed imminently sensible. The electorate were neither listening nor cared about what the Labour party was saying or doing. Polls reflected comfortable Labour leads that were more a referendum on the coalition than anything the Labour party was doing. A safety first approach seemed attractive and sensible; time to rebuild, heal and fight renewed.

At some point in every parliament, though, the cycle of politics ceases to be a referendum about the government and turns into a choice between parties. When that point comes, as it now surely has, Labour really ought to look like a plausible party of government offering a coherent, costed and attractive prospectus. The party is, to put it politely, some way off that. Members of the public are categorically not telling pollsters and canvassers that they wish Ed Miliband would just take that little bit longer to define himself and outline concrete policies.

“Zen socialism” increasingly sounds like a catch-all cover for a politics that the misty-eyed left so often yearn after, and that we can never have, or, frankly, a ruse concocted by the leadership and the sympathetic media to disguise that the party’s supremos really haven’t the faintest clue what to propose for 2015. Miliband is hostage to time, a victim of his own strategy. The public are an unforgiving lot and have already started painting in broad brushes the electoral canvas for 2015. If Miliband and his cohorts continue their considered silence then what could have been a masterpiece will instead hang neatly above a re-elected David Cameron’s door.

Vast swathes of the Labour party and, more importantly, the public simply aren’t willing to give the Labour leader and his senior advisors yet more time to pontificate. The constant promise of a better tomorrow has worn thin with a weary electorate, who have in many policy areas – because of the depth of silence from Labour – damned the party both in the past and for the future. It need not have been. If the party’s hierarchy had spent the last three years laying the foundation blocks of the vision to come then they simply would not have been facing the mountain of criticism they now rightly face. For a leader so often criticised for failing to define himself a vow of monastic silence is of questionable political course.

August has given way to a bitingly dreary September. In a few days the party faithful will assembly in Brighton for a four day bout in the annual amphitheatre of party conference. The Labour leader can have no more “zen” – and preferably little red-in-tooth-and-claw socialism – in his flagship speech. The countdown to 2015 began in 2010, it’s just that Miliband did not realise it. There’s no time like the present to start defining himself.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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3 Responses to “Please, no more “zen socialism””

  1. David says:

    I feel that the party has found itself in a corner and I have some sympathy. Milliband is getting a lot of stick for not defining the party under him but I can’t help feeling that any other leader, including big bro, would have faced the same challenges.

    Given the scale of the problem that needs to be solved, there were going to be some really, really difficult decisions that the coalition had to take. If labour had been in power, they would have had a choice – either take similar decisions (the Darling plan to cut the “half the deficit” in one parliament is about where we are going to be) or just not do anything and tried to spend their way out. I don’t think the latter choice was ever an option.

    It is the job of the opposition to oppose. They have opposed. But without saying we would spend, spend, spend what alternatives could they put forward. What painless cuts could they point to, that they would have made, that the coalition were not already addressing.

    If they hadn’t opposed the austerity measures, then they would have been seen to be cheering the coalition on and being ineffective and it would have looked like they (the coalition) were doing a good job. And a large part of the party and trade unions would have created hell within the labour party.

    If there had been no recovery, then they might have got away with it – “we said their policies were wrong, too fast too far, and they choked off the recovery”.

    Now that it looks like there is the start of a recovery and if it continues up to the election what do they say? Saying it would have been a faster, stronger recovery under Labour (without pointing to the policies that would have made it so) will not work.

    Going into the election, if they say, “We will stick to the current spending plans and not reverse anything”? After all their criticisms to date they now go along with it? Why bother changing? That policy will not win labour an outright majority. Or “we will spend more, tax more” – same old labour putting the recovery at risk – that is not going to win a working majority either.

    So where do they go? Their best chance might be to do what they are doing – nothing – just look at the polls, which if they are anywhere near accurate, gives them a chance of being the largest party in a hung parliament. (Thank the lib dems for stopping boundary change by the way, who says they never do anything useful)

    Should Labour do anything to risk moving away from that position in the polls? Why say we will stick in the middle or move left when doing either will cause massive internal fighting and not necessarily buy them any more public support.

    They just need to make sure there are no big splits in the party between now and election time (damage limitation) and hope the recovery is not too strong (a bit selfish maybe to hope the country does not do well). At the same time giving the impression that they would have made cuts with more compassion and precision to target the right places (but it does sound trite when they say that with no worthwhile examples)

    There are dangers though. I do think that once the interrogations start in earnest in the all important weeks before polling, the shadow ministers are going to be found wanting and the manifesto is going to be closely examined. And if there are a number of three leader debates, as last time, then I fear that Cameron and Clegg will dominate Milliband.

    Sometimes things have a strange way of working out. If David M really wanted the top job, he should have stuck around without causing trouble until after the next election as he could have inherited a more doable job. The Tories might not admit it, but a coalition probably saved them. There has probably been less resistance from the public to austerity because there is a stronger perception that things have been done in the national interest.

    A Tory govt on their own might not have survived 3 years without there being any recovery. The libdem policy of raising the tax thresholds to £10K and now saying they want to raise it to cover the whole of the minimum wage really has given some credibility to looking after the poorest (working) sections of society. This does not compensate for some of the other harsh cuts that have been made – but nonetheless perception is everything and labour were not articulating an workable alternative.

    There is still a possibility that a hung parliament could lead to an interesting tie up. The tories will be furious with cameron and co for not winning outright again and they will be agitating for change and if UKIP have made progress who knows what the mood in that party might be like.

    If within Labour there are discussions of coalition with the suggestion that some form of austerity will remain and public service unions will not recover some lost ground then who knows what internal strife there could be there. I fear some red lines being forced on them that make a coalition difficult.

    Is a coalition of the centre right and the centre left, in the national interest, really off the wall?

  2. bob says:

    David: a very cogent analysis, your not David Milliband in disguise are you?

  3. Ray_North says:

    Big week for Labour next week – as a disaffected Lib-Dem -I want to see a brave party that doesn’t pander to the economic lie that has been peddled for the last twenty odd years – this is what I want to see:

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