Labour’s 2013 report card: relying on the kindness of strangers is not enough

by Rob Marchant

Recently there seems to have been an odd acceptance by some right-wing commentators that Britain is to “sleepwalk to a Labour win”, as the Telegraph’s Matthew D’Ancona put it. It may be a genuine belief, rather than a way of giving Cameron a sly wake-up call. But if only that outcome were so sure from Labour’s current position.

On the contrary, when we look back on the third year of the Miliband project, we might struggle to see it as the success-filled year of the winning team.

For a start, any midterm year which an opposition ends with both a party and a leader less popular than at its start – as pollster Anthony Wells has observed – can hardly be declared an unqualified success.

This was a year in which a party going on to win a general election needed to be increasing its lead in both those categories, or at least holding them firm. If the near-halving of Labour’s poll lead had been down to some kind of surge for the Tories, it could have been acceptable. But the fact that both Labour and their leader are polling worse is discouraging news.

Pollster Deborah Mattinson’s noting that no party has ever gone on to win a majority from here is important, if not conclusive. And the answer is not, self-evidently, to simply lower our expectations and carry on as before, hoping to grasp at a deal with the Lib Dems, should such a thing one day be on the table.

When you are in a hole, stop digging, seems more appropriate. Or, put more simply, you do not tend to go down in the polls because the public thinks you are doing the right thing.

A second point would be the Syria vote: although Miliband managed to klutz it up fairly comprehensively, it is also fair to say that Cameron foolishly underestimated the lack of support in his own party. As a result, neither is cutting much of a figure of world statesman, as the bodies pile up in Syria at a higher rate than ever. “We stopped the rush to war” has a rather hollow ring to it, now it looks like the flimsiness of Western resolve means the murderer of thousands of children will stay in power after all.

And a third would be Falkirk. Yes, the general public is completely uninterested in the details of the internal workings of party selections. But through it, Labour has gifted the right-wing press an endless source of attack lines, without the Daily Mail even having to make anything up.

As a result, the public can smell weakness. They can smell when they are being sold a pup about what happened in Falkirk. And they can see a party pushed around by one trade union leader in particular, whose radical-left goals clearly remain very far from those of ordinary Britons.

Worst of all, from a man who purported to stand up to union meddling, the public can now see what looks for all the world like some frantic back-pedalling on party reform. The spring conference at which this finally put to bed is therefore likely to cast a shadow over 2014’s election season which follows immediately afterwards.

In fact, party reform could easily turn 2014 into a disastrous year. Miliband is caught between the rock of losing the vote and the hard place of watering down the reforms to the point of uselessness. And, irrespective of the political result, he could end up with an even more broke party to boot.

Even if – and it is a pretty big if – Miliband can come out of the spring conference with his credibility undamaged, what Labour needs urgently to do is pull back to the poll lead it had at the start of 2013. And, in reality, what seems more likely to happen is that it will drift further downwards, although UKIP may just temporarily save Labour’s electoral bacon by taking some Tory votes this May.

And it is exactly that kind of effect which seems to be keeping Labour hopes alive. Aside from a genuinely decent conference speech and one “big idea” on energy bills – which, as Lord Ashcroft observes in his polling released on Saturday, people like but don’t really believe will ever be implemented – far too much of Labour’s modest success in 2013 seems still to depend on events outside its control. From Osborne’s disastrous “omnishambles” budget of 2012, to Cameron’s misjudgement of his own backbenchers over the Syria vote, Miliband has often been a lucky politician, bouncing off the failures of others.

Now, it is certainly true that the Conservatives have given a fairly uninspiring performance overall during 2013. As Ashcroft further observes, they have some way to go to reassemble even their 2010 voter coalition.

But the one area which will help that, and which is starting to bear fruit for the Tories, is the critical one of the economy. The recovery may have come later than it should have, it may not be as strong as it should have been, but it has clearly come. And, if UKIP collapses as an electoral force by 2015, as historical precedent suggests it may, it may be Cameron’s turn for some good luck.

There is still all to play for. But in a pre-election year, a party must make the weather. It simply will not do for Labour to be the party which relies, like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, on “the kindness of strangers”.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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21 Responses to “Labour’s 2013 report card: relying on the kindness of strangers is not enough”

  1. Madasafish says:

    Once again the political classes -as evidenced by this article – show the disconnect between their thinking and the electorate. I quote:
    As a result, neither is cutting much of a figure of world statesman, as the bodies pile up in Syria at a higher rate than ever. “We stopped the rush to war” has a rather hollow ring to it, now it looks like the flimsiness of Western resolve means the murderer of thousands of children will stay in power after all.”

    You would have thought after the abject and total failure of the UK’s last interventions into Arab politics – in both Afghanistan and Iraq – that only a blind idiot and a masochist who enjoys repeating the same mistakes – would support intervention.

    Apparently not.

    After reading the above, I gave up.

    It has become obvious with events following our non intervention that we would have ended up allies with Islamist fighters.
    And Al Qaeda.

    I find that unacceptable when supporters of Al Qaeda kill British soldiers on British soil.

    I despair.

  2. Ex-labour says:

    Cameron’s personal ratings are not great, but Milibands are disastrous and should be much better at this stage in the political cycle. There is also the issue of public trust on the finances where Miliband and Balls in particular are also way below Osborne and the Tories. The problem is that it’s probably too late for Miliband to address the issue of Balls idiocy, and even if he did it may look like a panic measure. This would of course cause problems for Miliband having Balls as an enemy within. No doubt Mrs Balls would be no too pleased either.

    The big banana skin is the trade unions and the realisation that Miliband was in the loop al the way on Falkirk, which is why Watson threw his toys out of the pram. The public are not stupid and will recognise that for all his huffing and puffing on union reform Miliband can not do it without effectively bankrupting the Labour Party, which means the special conference will be about projecting Milibands image and the trade union reform discussions will be kicked into the long grass.

    As for Syria and the situation there, I don’t think this really has any impact. Sadly most people regard it as nothing to do with us and we should not interfere. Most politicos will no doubt challenge this but everyone I’ve spoken to either left or right tell me it’s not in their thinking. Having lived and worked in the Middle East this kind of tribal, religious and violent behaviour has simmered for many millennia in certain parts and we are foolish to think we would be able to influence or change it.

  3. paul barker says:

    I think you are missing the point about The Reforms to be discussed on March 1st. The power of Union Barons isnt based on votes in Conference/The NEC, in the end it depends on money. Any sort of “Opt-in” will slash The Union “Subs” & thus their power over Labour.
    Thats why The Unions are still resisting change even after all the rumoured concessions, its hard too see how both Milliband & The Union Bosses can avoid defeat.

  4. Rob Marchant says:

    @madasafish: your comment was so full of inaccuracies and wrong assumptions, I thought it worth putting you straight.

    Firstly I’m not sure how I am one of the “political classes” when I have never been a politician (nor for that matter even worked in politics for over a decade). So, good start.

    The “abject and total failure of the UK’s last interventions”, or not, is a matter of considerable debate between commentators and historians, despite your glib, black-and-white conclusion that it was simply bad and that is that. You can certainly find large numbers of Iraqis who, despite all the mess which has happened since, are still glad they are not in the regime of Saddam. The general conclusion is that the war was effective in both cases; everyone agrees the “peace”, such as it is, has been a lot less satisfactory. Even so, the vast majority of casualties have happened because of Islamist insurgents, not because of the UK or the US.

    Second, “intervention” is a very broad word, isn’t it? It means anything from full-scale regime change to lifting a finger to help your fellow man. Few advocated explicit attempts at regime change in this case, and I certainly didn’t.

    I and others did advocate a no-fly zone, though, and if this had been put in place early enough, not only might tens of thousands of (largely civilian) lives have been saved but the infiltration of Islamist militias might have been nipped in the bud.

    So, your point that “it has become obvious with events following our non intervention that we would have ended up allies with Islamist fighters.
    And Al Qaeda” is neither obvious nor even logical.

    The answer is, clearly, “it depends”. The conflict is there and it is spreading. We either choose to let it spiral out of control or we get involved, without knowing what the outcome will be. But it will certainly affect us, either way. Vladimir Putin knows this, which is why he is ensuring Russia is involved, and that he can influence the outcome.

    I may be wrong, by the way, but I suspect your answer to stopping “supporters of Al Qaeda killing British soldiers on British soil” is never to do anything which might remotely upset them, such as intervening (even as peacekeepers or non-combatants) to save civilian lives. In this way we would avoid any further terrorist action in the UK, and presumably Arabs killing each other in a “far-away country of which we know little” is a matter of little import.

    I despair.

    @Ex-Labour: Mostly agree. On Syria, you may well be right about the public’s view right now, but I fear historians will not be kind to Miliband and Cameron on the Syria vote. Syria is looking increasingly likely to be this decade’s Rwanda, and no-one is very proud of that.

  5. southern voter says:

    If Miliband is serious about winning in 2015 then offer the UK an in or out referendum
    on the EU.
    This will show Labour has learned the lessons of the Blair and Brown years
    and help build trust with the voters again.
    It will show the Opposition leader as courage and is determined to regain power
    again for Labour.

  6. Robert says:

    Miliband is a lucky politician. Didn’t Napoleon say something about lucky generals? Also, Blair and Thatcher were lucky politicians.

  7. Tafia says:

    Rob Marchant – Syria is not and never has been our war. The FSA would only have been able to win with massive intervention by the west and would have been unable to retain power without on-going large-scale assistance. The arab states between them have a huge army and airforce – over 8,000 modern main battle tanks for starters backed by over 4,000 fats jet state-of-the-art combat aircraft along with direct land access. You’ll notice that other than financial support for the FSA’s rivals (former allies), they have no intention because they are not so stupid.

    If you are so disappointed in the voting result of Commons regarding the issue how come you are still sat here and haven’t gone over there to join the FSA as a fighter? They’ll take anyone with a pulse aged 14 to 70 with no previous experience. So of you trot then – or really are you not that bothered that you would be prepared to fight for it.

  8. Tafia says:

    “Syria is looking increasingly likely to be this decade’s Rwanda, and no-one is very proud of that.”

    If you seriously think 90% of the population are bothered about Rwanda then I suggest you stop drinking. Most people have no idea where it is other than in Africa somewhere, are only vaguely aware that a civil war happened and don’t care anyway.

    Maybe the Guardianistas and the Islington chattering classes and other similar pointless groups but that’s your lot. In the mainstream it ranks a long long way down the list behind Eastenders, Sponge-Bob Squarepants, Sky Sports and the antics of the junkie Nigella Lawson.

    It isn’t important to most people, never has been and never will be.

  9. Rob Marchant says:

    @Tafia: I don’t think you were listening the first time, so I’ll repeat: I was in favour of a no-fly zone. No-one has been arguing for “boots on the ground” that I’ve seen. This is about genocide prevention, not winning a war. Your argument that if you are not prepared to go and fight as a rebel then you have no right to an opinion, if I understand you correctly, is facile.

  10. Henrik says:

    I thought we’d put the Syria thing to bed already? In case anyone’s forgotten:

    a. It’s not our business
    b. It’s not our problem
    c. Even if a. and b. were not true, Parliament didn’t support our getting involved in any sort of coercive measures directed at the incumbent government, which, as we all know, is battling an Islamist and partially AQ-led insurgency. Of course, the incumbent government is a vile, sectarian dictatorship supported by some truly unsavoury actors.
    d. About 20 people in the UK give a toss about a-c above.

  11. Madasafish says:

    Rob Marchant

    What are the lessons form Afghanistan and Iraq.?

    Well: you need to win the war – obvious.
    Then you need to win hearts and minds: obvious
    Then you need an overwhelming land based army to enforce the peace and change the country.As was done after WW2 with Germany and Japan : 60 years after WW2 there are still (!) US troops there.

    Does anyone seriously believe we are going to put 500,000 US and UK troops in Syria for 20 years?

    We did not do it Afghanistan or Iraq so we certainly would not do it in Syria.

    So it is plain to a simple soul like me that people who advocate armed intervention in Syria have learned nothing from history. And are not competent to wage war.. unless all they want is to make themselves feel better.

    As for Rwanda, why stop there? What about North Korea? Or Chechnya?

  12. Tafia says:

    Rob, a No Fly Zone is a nonsense just the same as it was in Bosnia (where I served with UNPROFOR) and just the same as it was in northern Iraq (where some of my frieds in Special Forces were training kurds). It’s something simple to fool simple minds.

    Most of the killing and maiming that is going on is happening in the urban areas and most of the resupplying is coming in overland not by air. One thing that NATO is pretty certain of is that if NATO tried to put one in place it would be vetoed by the Russians at the UN so it would have to be done without UN approval and the Russians and probably the Iranians would then deliberately ignore it just to prove a point.

    The only No-Fly that worked was Libya and that only worked because there was popular support for an armed uprising. As it now pans out deposing Gaddaffi was a remarkably stupid idea and the Islamists in the east of the country centred on Benghazi not more than three days ago impounded all the oil tankers in port, are holding them ransom still and threatening to blow them up in situ thus sealing the terminals and ending Libya’s oil exports for years at a stroke.

    Incidentally, I have a fair few mates who are security ‘contractors’ in Libya, Iraq, Bosnia, & Afghanistan and they all say the same thing – we have f*cked up royally in all cases because we made a very basic error – we tried to force a system of government on them we are happy with rather than one they were happy with.

    Iraq ia a shambles. More people have died since we ‘liberated’ them than died under Saddam and it’s on the verge of civil war (again).

    Afghanistan will collapse in a bloodbath and you will probably see a direct military ground intervention by Pakistan into the Pashtun areas as full scale Pashtun insurrection spreads encompassing Helmand and the neighbouring part of Pakistan. 4-% of the population is Pashtun and has no interest in Afghanistan as a state. They have theor own language and culture. Virtually none of the Afghan Army or Police are Pashtun, and virtually none of them can even speak Pashtun. And don’t be surprised of China decides to have a nibble at the north east corner of Afghanistan – purely for ‘border security’ – pulling Tajikstans strings to move in and protect their fellow ethnic Tajiks.

    Bosnia is a deeply divided country and the Srpska areas won’t even accept Bosnian money. In the Federation areas they are more ethnically divided than ever. Luckily, when it kicks off there again it will be very quick – we’ve trained their forces well and they are now far better equipped and motivated.

    Libya was stable under Gaddaffi and is now a collection of warring tribes with al-Quada openly recruiting & more importantly openly training in and around Benghazi. The country is more than likely going to split into three along ethnic lines and cease to exist. You know full well what happens oin these countries when they split on ethnic lines – so do I, I’ve documented rows and stinking rows of them.

    Syria was stable with (for middle eastern standards) a fairly tolerent multi-cultural society. It is now a shambles and an ethnic bloodbath with al-Quada in open control of major towns and cities. The FSA (beloved of the west) is not the choice of liberator of the bank-rolling arab states who want the Islamists to win.

    No-Fly will achieve nothing and there has been nothing from the start preventing neighbouring arab countries from imposing one – other than they couldn’t give a rats arse. Saudi Arabia alone has over 150 F-15s, over 20 Tornados, and over 30 Typhoons and a shed load of other stuff. All with highly trained crews (us and the yanks trained them). And more importantly all just a stones throw away. They could impose one very easily on their own if they wanted. And that’s before you add in the airforces of countries such as UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain etc etc. So why are you not asking why they aren’t sorting their own backyard out – they are more than capable. Scared of the answer maybe?

    As it stands, 2014 could very well be when al-Quada rules a Caliphate that stretches from the mediterranean coast across northern Syria, and into western Iraq, and from Misrata in Libya eastwards to the Egyptian border, southwards into Chad and Niger – because they aren’t far off it.

  13. Tafia says:

    40% that is, not 4-%

  14. Rob Marchant says:

    @Tafia: Well, that’s a better debate. I will not take issue with your views on military matters, and genuinely very interested to hear views from someone who’s been there. I’ll limit myself to respond on a couple of other areas, particularly death toll stats and the politics behind all this.

    On the death tolls, I am very interested to know on what you base your figures. The only generally-accepted credible source is Iraq Body Count and this was about 150k last time I looked (probably a bit higher now). The Lancet study which quoted stupid figures of 1m+ is now thoroughly discredited. I don’t know what the best source for during-Saddam figures is, but here’s an idea:
    This essentially disagrees with your assertion that more have died since than before, but as I say I’d be very interested to see sources on this.

    The FSA is now woefully compromised, as you point out. But it was not always like that. Your Caliphate could well become a reality, but as I’m sure you’d agree, at some point that will require a Western response. The question is not whether or not we need to get involved, but when. Do it now, and get involved too early, or wait and get involved too late? This is a strategic, geopolitical question as much as a military one. And where do we stand on genocide – look the other way? There’s sure as hell going to be more.

    What is surely true is that Al Qaeda hates the West and will not just let it be. So we will be involved sooner or later, whether we like it or not. Or, put it this way, I can’t imagine that Al Qaeda will leave the West in peace for the next 50 years or so while it establishes a Caliphate; it goes against their stated aims and all their behaviour to date.

  15. Tafia says:

    Well for starters the 500,000 Iraqis killed in the Iran-Iraq war were killed by the Iranians – apart from which don’t forget he invaded Iran at the west’s behest so really they are on our plate as much as the Iranians.

    IBC (who are reknowned for marking down anyway) have a figure of 184,000 – and that’s SINCE the 2003 invasion. It doesn’t include those killed during the first invasion nor those that were killed by allied air attacks between then and the second invasion. However in October 2013 a report compiled jointly by university researchers in the United States, Canada and Baghdad in full cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Health puts the figure at a smidgen over 400,000 since 2003.

    The FSA was woefully compromised the minute the west were involved with it. From that moment on it stood no chance. Same as the current non-government in Kabul and likewise the non-government in Tripoli. All tainted and doomed to fail by western involvement.

    There will be no Western response to an al-Quada Caliphate. The Saudis are happy with it, it upsets the shia Iranians, and even the Israelis prefer rampant salafist Sunnis to a rampant shia Hezbollah.

    Our involvements are piss-poor, nowhere near big enough (and that includes the Americans) – largely because the NATO possesses neither the funds nor the manpower nor the equipment to actually do anything hence why Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya lie between failure and unmitigated disaster. Syria is now destined to become an extremist Islamic Republic (unless the boy Bashar kicks ass) which in turn will destabilise western Iraq even further. Nato simply does not possess the capability of the the size needed to actually sort just one of these out and the on-going force reductions going on all over the west will reduce that non-capability even further.

    Our presence in all of these has led to more people dying, gross instability and a completely unpredictable future that is almost certainly going to be more dangerous to us than if we’d just left well alone. Pragmatism is the only way to deal with the middle east – always has been, always will be. Bosnia – because it is Europe – is the one we should have nipped in the bud and could actually have stopped right at the start – but we didn’t because we tried to be political and involve the UN and as a result a largely static civil war being fought out by piss-poor troops with third rate equipment, poor leadership at all levels, no discipline, no actual stomach to press home the fight and no idea about what they were doing or how to fight cohesively to achieve it managed to drag on a semi-war for years that even now 20 years after it started, is really only at a mutual ceasefire and the only thing that maintains the ceasefire is the carrot of potential EU membership not just for Bosnia but Croatia and Serbia as well along with the massive funding that will bring and adoption of the euro.

  16. Henrik says:

    Worth noting here that Salafism isn’t directly aimed at the West – the primary target for AQ is the Saudi state and its perceived corrupt and un-Islamic occupation and exploitation of the two holy mosques, the secondary the ‘Zionist entity’. The West is a downstream target for AQ, currently in the cross hairs as punishment for support of the Saudis and Israel. Net result to date, several hundred thousand dead Muslims and less than ten thousand Westerners in the last 12 and a half years. Great job, guys, go AQ.

    On the wider military front, AQ affiliates, allies and fellow travellers are very active in Syria, but the Syrian Army is largely intact and functional and is being actively supported by Al Qds types from Iran and the fairly tasty Hezbollah from Lebanon.

    Syria will probably run and run, neither side is in a position to win – and winning, nowadays, when folk refuse to believe they’ve been beaten and can carry on asymmetric operations more or less ad libitum, given even the thinnest supply line, is very hard to do – as we should probably have realised by now, given our experience on Operations Telic and Herrick.

    Actually, what we are witnessing – and have allowed ourselves to become involved in – is all part of two simultaneous developments, to my mind – a crisis inside Sunni Islam as folk attempt to find some path which allows them to exercise their faith preference while still exploiting all the advantages of a thoroughly secular early 21st Century technological, cultural and social revolution – and one of those regular collision moments between outnumbered but competent and motivated Shia and wider Sunni Islam.

    As to whether, as good internationalists, Labour should be taking a view, you’d know better than me. I know what my take is, but it’s unlikely to find favour with the NEC and certainly not with the anti-Sem-, oh excuse me, anti-*Zionists* of the Labour Party.

  17. Rob Marchant says:

    @Henrik: I shouldn’t worry, very little of what’s written in these pages is likely to find favour with the NEC! Btw, the “anti-Zionists”, as I’m sure you realise are by no means representative of Labour rank and file. But they are noisy and they are – for, me, at least – a huge embarrassment.

  18. Tafia says:

    You forget rob that many devout jews are anti-zionist as are many Israelis.

  19. Henrik says:

    Now there’s a relief, I’d hate to have to worry about a fatwa from the NEC to add to all my other problems.

  20. Tafia says:

    This is where interventionism gets you. Invading Afghanistan in revenge for 9/11, when the 8/11 terrorists were predominantly Saudi, middle class, wealthy and well educated, and trained in Germany and the USA.

    And now we are about to do a runner and pretend we haven’t lost (much like Basra) and the people we went to get rid of have taught us the same lesson thast we always fail to learn – asymetric warfare is frighteningly expensive, you rarely achieve anything, and 10 years is not a long time to a movement willing to keep things simmering and wait.–and-the-taliban-in-afghanistan-9053627.html

  21. Wesley says:

    Did anyone else catch cdamroe Millibrains comment about the Tories using the EU as a boogyman just like they used the USSR’? I cant remember the exact words that millibrain used but Hague really missed a prime comeback that showed Millibrain for the lifelong marxist sympathiser spending his youth with soviet front groups and sucking marxist hogwash from his parents like mothers milk.Hague could have pointed out that the Tories fought against the cruel,evil and bankrupt soviet socialist ideology where the Millibrain clan and labour would have supported a soviet takeover of the UK, if you remember it was a major reason why the labour friutcakes lost to thatcher during the cold war, remember also that the labour manifesto at the time was in fact nothing more than a soviet collaboration document detailing the UKs surrender terms to the USSR.I suspect the Millibrain brothers longed for a marxist ideology to be imposed on the west, I sense a bitterness in them quite well hidden that it was in fact the Tory leadership and co opperation with Reagan that destroyed the evil USSR.Both exude the kind of arrogant elitist demenour much like their political beliefs ie a thin fake veneer of caring on the surface barely covering a deep hatred and nastyness combined with an overwhelming sense of entitlement seeething within.I see the Millibrains at home in the USSR loving the lifestyle of the commissar class.I would just love Putin to release all the details about those British socialists who betrayed their nation and worked for the USSR, Ill bet the Millibrain clan was high on the list. 0 likes

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