by Jonathan Todd
Tony Blair might be despondent about Labour’s prospects but all is not lost, there are three reasons for Labour victory in 2015: leadership, economy and brand.
Uncut has consistently warned about the dangers attaching to Labour’s poor polling on leadership and economy. The own goals and gaffes of Conservatives, however, open the door to these improving. Labour enjoys an advantage on brand, which is similarly assisted by Tory missteps.
If David Cameron’s party were a character on Thomas the Tank engine, the Fat Controller would be bellowing at them that they have caused confusion and delay. He’d be saying the same to Labour. Labour is not as popular or convincing as we would like. But Tory error is giving Labour the opportunity, should we seize it, to be marginally and decisively less unpopular and unconvincing.
Labour would be the least unpopular in the unpopularity contest that is this general election. Arriving in government in such circumstances would bring its own challenges. Not least as precipitous demands will be placed on whoever forms the next government by the UK’s fiscal position, underperforming economy and ageing society, as well as looming questions involved with everything from Vladimir Putin’s intentions to Nigel Farage’s staying power about our place in the world.
Someone will have a Labour plan for all of this. Charlie Falconer, perhaps. I think he leads Labour’s preparation for government work. If so, noting his chapter on delivery in the Uncut book, he should call Paul Crowe. The Hollande scenario that troubles Crowe must be averted. One way in which it might become existential for Labour is if UKIP establishes itself as the second party in much of northern England at the general election and then use the frustrations of an administration as disappointing as Hollande’s to further advance.
Those working to avoid this scenario are working on behalf of a party, as Janan Ganesh has noted in the Financial Times, thought considerably closer to the political centre than the Conservatives. It’s also UKIP, the Greens and even Russell Brand that the public see as closer to the centre than the Conservatives. It should worry us all that UKIP – the party of Nick Griffin and Enoch Powell – are wolves successfully passing themselves off as sheep. It should worry Tories specifically that they are thought bedfellows of these right wingers.
“There are three variables that shape a party’s electoral prospects,” Ganesh writes. “As well as leadership and economic trust there is the airier question of a party’s reputation or brand.” Cameron long ago stopped modernising and Ganesh sees this cessation as causing the Tories brand problems, exemplified by their perceived distance from the centre. Cameron’s modernisation, nonetheless, was always more Alastair Campbell than Michael Barber, communicating messages, not changing realities.
This modernisation is on brief in opposition, where messages are the relevant currency. Delivery, however, is the medium of exchange in government. In opposition, Labour has been guilty of seeking to trade on coins of delivery left over from government.
Ed Balls Bloomberg speech in 2010, for example, charts a strategy that would have reaped more reward in delivery and public approval than the actual strategy deployed by George Osborne has come to. But the Balls speech did not send the message required by Labour in opposition. Rather than sending the message that we can be trusted with other peoples’ money, which is Labour’s task in this parliament of opposition, it seemed eager to spend this money, which is a privilege that we might have used to deliver in government.
The Conservatives made the opposite error. There is no Michael Barber, no delivery. Born to rule Cameron just anticipated our gratitude. Tony Blair’s modernisation never stopped and his delivery expanded throughout his administration. Negligent of delivery, Cameron subcontracted messages to Osborne, which, with a persistent opposition mindset, the chancellor sees as all. He overplayed his hand in the Autumn Statement, leaving bombs, unexploded since the 1930s, beneath the Tory campaign. As they go off – provided Labour advances into the vacated political terrain – the Tory lead on the economy will wither.
All the while, the post Cameron era mercilessly moves more into view. The question that dogged Blair in 2005 will hound Cameron in 2015: Will he serve a full term? Back then, it was pretty clear that Gordon Brown, then so popular that he was an asset to Blair on walkabouts in southern marginal seats, would take over at some stage. Who is Cameron’s heir apparent? Osborne? Theresa May? Boris Johnson? The more they scrabble the more they are all damaged and the more Cameron’s advantage over Miliband on leadership shrinks.
Forward, not back, Labour declared in 2005, as the Tories will in 2015. Then the country still wanted what Labour was thought to offer: delivery on the economy and public services. From a double act, Blair and Brown, that remained more palatable than the alternative. Now the country does not fancy what the Tories offer: lack of delivery on both those fronts.
Are you thinking what I am thinking? The Tories asked in 2005. Back when we weren’t allowed to talk about immigration, right? Well, I’m thinking that we seem to have talked about little else ever since. And I’d rather be hearing Labour press home our advantages on leadership, economy and brand.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut