by Jonathan Todd
It would, obviously, be wrong to wholly attribute to Nigel Farage responsibility for Nick Clegg’s political predicament. They are largely trading in different parts of the political market and the Oakeshott disaster is a wholly home-grown crisis for the Liberal Democrats.
Instead, Clegg’s low share price derives from decisions – in particular, betraying the platform on which he stood in 2010 – taken long before his debates with Farage.
Clegg isn’t fighting for his political life because of Farage. The blood on Farage’s hands is that of Nick Griffin’s. The real UKIP earthquake didn’t happen in Westminster but beneath the BNP, revealing part of UKIP’s appeal.
As well as taking support from the BNP, half of UKIP voters in the European elections voted Tory in the last general election. It would be a potentially decisive boost to David Cameron’s hopes of remaining in Downing Street to get these voters back. Hoping that this doesn’t happen, and that Lib Dem recovery is also avoided, is perilous for Labour.
There are other factors beyond Labour’s control that help Ed Miliband toward Number 10, such as the vagaries of our constituency boundaries and Cameron’s incomplete Tory decontamination project, which means that mistrust of his party remains more pervasive than it would otherwise be. Rather than speculate as to how low a ceiling this places on Tory support, and whether it is lowest among ethnic minorities, northerners or women, Labour should be seeking to complete the decontamination project that the last general election confirmed we require.
The trouble is that this project has barely begun. Miliband launched his bid for the party leadership talking about immigration. But it’s not clear that Labour are now any more convincing on this contentious topic than when we were ejected from office. Even more damagingly, we also left office with trust corroded in us as responsible custodian’s of public money. In austere times, we seem over keen on spending other people’s money, whether that of taxpayers or private businesses, and disinclined to make savings. While Miliband has spoken more frequently about welfare than fiscal discipline, this is another big negative exposed in 2010 that we’ve failed to recover.
By failing to address these big national challenges – recasting the state as both affordable and capable of effectively fulfilling the economic and social functions that we depend upon it for; building immigration and welfare systems in tune with popular morality – Labour has diminished our relevance. Shadow ministers grumble that without credibility on spending nothing else will be heard.
We’ve appeared more like an amalgam of pressure group interests than an aspirant party of government. Without the discernment to weigh competing claims or the strength to come down in favour of the right one, these tendencies seem likely to be connected to two significant Labour shortfalls: falling further behind on leadership and economic competence. No party has come into government losing on both these fronts.
It should be clear that if we want to return to government, we wouldn’t go via this route. But should we start rowing in different direction? Anthony Painter says ‘yes’. Dan Hodges says ‘no’. They assess the situation in broadly the same terms. Dan, though, feels it is too late for Ed to be anything other than Ed. Given that, according to John Rentoul, the leaders of our party are “preparing for defeat“, it’s difficult to know exactly what will happen next.
We’re not gripped by the same blind panic as the Lib Dems but fatalism is building in the Labour bloodstream. Which would quicken if the Lib Dems got round to keeping Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister and replacing him as party leader – the compromise between fulfilling their coalition responsibilities and giving them the fresh voice that they so desperately need.
Economic recovery will also encourage Labour fatalism if it continues to improve Tory polling – a trend that Tories will seek to reinforce by endlessly proclaiming their “long-term economic plan”, a somewhat disingenuous claim but now the most predictable and perhaps resonant attack line in British politics. And if Cameron seduces the UKIP voters that he is pursuing – with his lead over Miliband on leadership an asset in this battle – this fatalism will further deepen.
All of which is the stuff of avoidable tragedy. The government’s headline commitment on immigration – tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands – will be shattered. Instead of fixing welfare, they’ve given us the universal credit shambles – with a major report on this failure sneaking out the day after polling day. The coalition was supposedly formed to rescue national finances. Yet George Osborne will borrow more in 5 years than Labour did in 13.
The government is failing to address every key national challenge. Not because they are uniquely morally deficient, as Labour tends to insist. But because they are incompetent. We know that they are so because they are failing to deliver what they said they’d deliver – sound finances, reduced immigration, reformed welfare.
Labour must demonstrate our ability to meet the UK’s biggest challenges and the government’s failure to do. There are no shortcuts to this task. Believing that there are, whether through retail offers on the cost of living or otherwise, is a chimera that only lengthens the distance that we have to travel. We owe it to our country to provide solutions that the government have shown they cannot.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut