We’re not the story. Get used to it, says Dan Hodges

Two chance Westminster meetings this week set me thinking about one of the big tactical problems facing Labour.

The first involved a discussion with two Labour supporting  members of the Parliamentary lobby, the elite squadron of registered press hawks who follow politics from an exclusive eyrie in the House of Commons.

From debating great matters of state (why Fabio Capello should persevere with Emile Heskey), the conversation drifted to the merits of their key contacts. Routine enough, except that the names were suddenly unfamiliar. Where once were Charlie, Dugher and  Damian, now it was Andy, Gaby and Henry. This was the beltway equivalent of the wrong picture coming into your head when you hear the words “prime minister”. For me, it was almost worse.

The second was with an advisor to one of the leadership candidates. “We keep pushing stuff out there”, he said, “but it’s not cutting through. It just vanishes”.

Both those conversations, in their differing ways, highlighted the same issue. We aren’t the story any more.

Ever since the election of Tony Blair, Labour has been living life on the political A list. Every statement scrutinised. Every policy analysed. No longer.

This is not a cosmetic change of circumstance. The speed with which we acknowledge the diminution of our political currency is a fundamental component of the renewal process.

There is a popular misconception that Labour has to quickly adapt to the role of opposition party. We must oppose the cuts, protect our people, expose the fault lines in the coalition.

Wrong. We are not the opposition yet. We are still ‘the former government’. Alistair Darling has been indefatigable in his assault on the coalition over their emergency budget. And yet he has failed to penetrate. 48% of the electorate blame us for spending cuts, with 60% trusting the coalition to make the right economic choices. Of course Alistair’s attacks have failed. Less than 8 weeks ago his prescription for economic recovery was decisively rejected by the electorate. How can we possibly hope his critique of the alternative will resonate?

The fact is that we are not in a position to protect anyone. Our final opportunity to block the Tory/Lib Dem cuts was May 7. We blew it. The cuts are coming; they will hurt; and our only response can be to ensure that when we are next presented with an  opportunity for power we seize it.

One way of ensuring that opportunity is not seized is to continue to hurl ourselves at Cameron and Clegg as if the election campaign had never ended. The party needs a break. People are physically and mentally exhausted. Our attacks are tired and easily blunted. Plans mooted by some for a ‘summer offensive’ to destabilise the coalition should be dropped. A good book and quiet beach should be the priority for the PLP and shadow cabinet.

There will be no new election this autumn. So we should use the time wisely. Instead of rushing headlong at the new government we must take a step back.

To start, we have to free the party from the straightjacket of the manifesto. There is good sport to be had in contrasting pre-election statements by Vince Cable and his colleagues with their actions in government. But we cannot continue to hawk around the ideas and policies that led the party to its heaviest defeat since 1983. Shadow ministers and back benchers must have the space to deploy new arguments and new thinking, freed from an albatross fair for all.

Nor must we fall into the trap of attempting to define ourselves exclusively through the prism of our opponents’ prospectus. The cuts that are about to be implemented will provide us with an easy target. We should seize opportunities where they are presented. But we should remember that the next election will be a choice, not a referendum. David Cameron had the opportunity of defining himself against a recession, a divided Government and a leader chronically unsuited to the demands of modern election campaigning, and still failed to secure an overall majority. We will need to construct a more sophisticated pitch for the electorate  than ‘we told you so’.

In fact, they key to using the next six months will not actually be how to scrutinise Cameron and Clegg, but how we scrutinise ourselves. David Miliband has a point when he says that he isn’t interested  in “a better yesterday but a better tomorrow”.

But it is equally true that what’s past is prologue. We cannot hope to move forward as a party and a movement unless we analyse in a mature and sober way our errors as a  government and as a party. That doesn’t mean an orgy of self-recrimination. But it does require a period of reflection and self-analysis.

Before we can be an effective government we need to be an effective opposition. And before we can be an effective opposition we have a lot of thinking and a lot of planning to do. When we have something to say, people will start to listen to us. In the meantime a short spell out of the limelight will do us all some good.

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5 Responses to “We’re not the story. Get used to it, says Dan Hodges”

  1. U Nimpressed says:

    “The fact is that we are not in a position to protect anyone. Our final opportunity to block the Tory/Lib Dem cuts was May 7. We blew it. The cuts are coming; they will hurt; and our only response can be to ensure that when we are next presented with an opportunity for power we seize it.”

    well if people had taken that attitude … we’d have had the Poll Tax for the best part of a decade instead of the brief inglorious period of it’s existence.

    Of course if your view is that politics is something that only happens in Palace of Westminster then …

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Aaronovitch, Nigel Nelson and Altany, Labour Uncut. Labour Uncut said: UNCUT: we're not the story any more – get used to it, says Dan Hodges http://bit.ly/bcj7iZ […]

  3. Colster says:

    Jeez this is self indulgent. Who says there will not be an election this autumn or winter? This is a fragile coalition and Labour needs to be in a position to take advantage of any cracks that appear in it, rather than indulging in a major navel-gazing exercise. The manifesto was not the reason Labour lost the election.

  4. I’ll second that, Colster.

    Labour Uncut seems to have got into the bad habit of letting former SPADs think that they are the party. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    We’ve got to keep attacking, because people don’t objectively assess whether a budget is good or bad for them. They read the media spin of it. It’ll take a few months before the actual consequences of the budget start to be felt, but by then we need to be there pushing hard.

    I’m not going to say we need to be deep in combat now. People do need time to recover (and indeed much of the frontbench is AWOL anyway – I haven’t heard of Alan Johnson doing anything for well over a month). But we need to keep up the barrage in a low-level way, whilst planning for the confrontations that are coming.

    And those who think of themselves as the party’s intelligentsia need to stop insisting we say what we’d cut so that those of us in the constituencies can get on with the job of opposition.

    There won’t be an election in six months time. But there will be several in May – local council elections in England, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly. Labour needs to get ready for the hard grind of opposition so we can win those. It doesn’t matter if people don’t listen at first. They won’t and it won’t get reported. But if we want to have credibility when the cracks do appear, we need to have been in John the Baptist mode for months.

  5. AmberStar says:

    Dan Hodges seem to have missed how the Tories & Dems got elected.

    They, & their friends in the media, just kept chipping away at the Labour Party & its leaders. There was no ‘opposition death blow’ from them. No knock out punch that cost Labour the election. They just went on & on & on about the recession & the deficit saying, in face of all evidence to the contrary, “It was Gordon Brown’s fault – blame him.”

    Therefore, regarding the cuts, the Labour Party are equally entitled to say, “It is all David Cameron’s fault – blame him.” And just keep on saying it as often as possible.

    Not entirely true? Not a particularly sophisticated argument? Folks won’t buy it…. That’s what I thought when Cameron & Co. were blaming Labour for the global banking collapse & resulting deficit. But it worked for them; so why not for us? 😎

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