by Alexander Shea
Last month’s Conference represented a nadir for Ed Miliband’s Labour party. It was a graveyard of narrative, an abandonment of the political.
Labour relapsed into ‘itemised politics’, presenting a praiseworthy plan for the protection of the NHS yet failing to encompass it within a wider coherent and compelling narrative of what is fundamentally wrong with this country and how Labour proposes to put it right.
As the shock of the Heywood and Middleton by-election has shown, an electoral strategy comprised of a single-issue focus on the NHS is not going to cut the mustard. Narrow, itemised politics is not the way forward. To win in 2015, Labour needs to think big.
Establishing a clear and firm policy line on the NHS was necessary. As polls have shown it is the most important issue in the upcoming election to 34% of voters, making it the leading issue for 2015.
But it is precisely in these polling figures that the sheer lack of ambition or political message that Labour conveyed by making the NHS its marquee policy, is able to be sensed. It smacked of a 35 percent strategy: a timid desire to play it safe politically- to score on ‘open goal’ policy issues such as the NHS- in the knowledge that due to an electoral quirk, Labour will win a majority in the next Parliament if it breaks the 35 percent threshold. What better way to implement such a 35 percent strategy than by banking on an issue that 35 percent of the electorate prioritise.
Pursuing such a timid approach, however, is the height of folly. John Prescott is right. Rather than scoring an ‘open goal’ on the NHS, by pursuing itemized politics Labour has sacrificed the potential for a broader political message, and consequently scored a massive own goal.
They presented David Cameron with a gilt-edged opportunity at his party conference in Birmingham. At a time when Cameron should have been on the back foot over Brooks Newmark’s sexting and Mark Reckless’ defection to UKIP, Labour effectively presented Cameron with the opportunity to use his party conference speech as a platform from which to project a narrative of British politics, that of ‘economism’ in which the twin gods of economic growth and welfare cuts are reified at the expense of humanistic politics, the latter focusing not on objective economic data but the subjective experience of living in austerity Britain: the cost of living crisis, the bedroom tax, childcare allowance and so on.