by Atul Hatwal
Labour has achieved something remarkable this year. In the space of eight weeks the party has managed to focus the national debate on some of its strongest issues – the NHS, equalities and tax avoidance – and yet still failed to land a blow. The average of this week’s YouGov polls is a very small Conservative lead.
The NHS should be a campaign winner, every time for Labour. But when Andy Burnham decided to use the rise in NHS spending outsourced to the private sector, as his key evidence to prove the Tories’ privatising intent, he turned political gold to base metal.
Given two-thirds of the rise in outsourcing happened under Labour, with the rate of increase actually slowing under the Tories, it doesn’t take David Axelrod to work out why Labour was on the back foot almost immediately.
Then there was Harriet Harman’s pink battlebus. There’s nothing wrong with the bus being pink and the issues raised by the women’s tour are important, but when Labour frontbenchers have been campaigning vociferously that equating the colour pink with girls is sexist then, once again, who couldn’t have predicted disastrous headlines?
Most recently there has been Ed Miliband’s offensive on tax avoidance. It’s difficult to think of territory more uncomfortable for David Cameron. Yet by broadening the Labour attack onto the principle of tax avoidance, rather than the narrow specifics of the jaw-dropping appointment of HSBC’s Stephen Green as a Minister, even when government officials knew all about HSBC’s illicit activities, Ed Miliband blew it.
Cue embarrassing questions about whether shadow ministers collected receipts for every odd job or window cleaned and the circumstances in which Ed Miliband’s mother seems to have avoided tax on the house in which he now lives.
Individually, these incidents seem like discrete gaffes but a common thread runs through each failure.
Andy Burnham, Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband all walked into such eminently predictable elephant traps because their moral certitude blinded them to the politically obvious.
For Andy Burnham, outsourcing operations to the private sector while he was Secretary of State for Health was not comparable to the Tories doing the same because he is Labour and they are Tories.
Harriet Harman was not being sexist in her choice of pink because she was Harriet Harman and could not be sexist.
And Ed Miliband’s minor domestic tax avoidance was morally different to what avaricious capitalists do. How could his mother be like them?
This mode of insular righteousness is nearer the behaviour of a cult than a party of government. It is not enough to believe we are right because we are Labour.
To assume is not to be.
Swing voters will look at these episodes and shake their heads. At the apparent hypocrisy, and the basic political incompetence.
What’s most frustrating is that it’s not as if the party has completely forgotten how to campaign.
The shadow Treasury team’s forensic pursuit of George Osborne, over what he did and did not know about HSBC’s tax avoidance, when Stephen Green was appointed, is exactly what Ed Miliband should have been doing.
And earlier in the month, Chuka Umunna gave a master-class in how Labour can win over business combining the right tone with a carefully calibrated attack on the Tories.
The manner in which he wove together his personal story – the son of a successful small businessman – with his experiences visiting upcoming small businesses as part of his Future Jobs tour was poles apart from the hectoring Junior Common Room poses that Ed Miliband strikes when he talks at business.
If Labour was a pressure group, the last two months would have been an unqualified success. Issues have been registered on the national agenda, the public’s ire raised.
But Labour must be more.
It’s meant to be a government-in-waiting. It is not enough to simply flag an issue in the debate and presume that Labour is right.
Labour must persuade. It needs to make the case for a compelling alternative.
Unfortunately, too many members of the shadow cabinet seem to think that moral outrage at the Tories, for being Tories, will be enough.
At some point before May 7th, they should go back and check the result of the last election.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut