The left is losing its marbles

by Dan Hodges

I’ve taken Tom Watson’s advice. I’ve poured myself a stiff drink, kicked back and raised a festive glass to Ed Miliband.

But nothing’s happened. I waited for the warm glow. A mellow wave of positive reflection to engulf me. Nothing.

Try as I might, I cannot conjure up the magic. The excitement. The anticipation. The child-like optimism. Like the boy in the Polar Express, I no longer believe.

I wish I could. I wish I could see the things that others see. Ed striding up Downing Street, waving to the cheering crowds. Len McCluskey, Charles Kennedy and Charlie Gilmour locked in a sublime embrace of unity and comradeship. New foreign secretary Chuka Umunna, chancellor David Miliband and community rehabilitation secretary Ed Balls applauding his arrival.

There is the audacity of hope. And there is the sleep of reason. We have ended the year succumbing to the latter.

The Labour party, indeed the wider Labour movement, is experiencing a combination of a mid-life crisis and a nervous breakdown. Discipline, maturity and moderation have been cast onto the bonfire of the new politics; replaced by kettling, flash mob protests and the promise of general strikes.

“Something’s happening out there”, one shadow minister said to me, hopefully. He’s right. What’s happening is that the left is losing its marbles.

Freed from the shackles (sometimes called responsibilities) of office, we are acting like children in an anarcho-syndicalist sweet shop. Shall we go on the fees protest? No, let’s hit Vodafone. Wait, what about the demo against the police? Aren’t we supposed to be targeting the Lib Dems’ offices? Or is it Top Shop? And the occupations? Hey, the cuts; what about the cuts…?

All of this could be dismissed as youthful high spirits, if it weren’t for the desperate efforts of the Labour party leadership to appropriate the zeitgeist. School children wanting to join in demos, “should be free to do so”, said Ed Miliband. No, they shouldn’t. School children should be in school, not putting themselves in between a tooled-up Met and an SWP rent-a-mob.

In fairness to the student protestors, at least they’re successfully marrying flair with organisational acumen. If only the same could be said for Labour.

A few weeks ago, it was only Ed’s opponents who were claiming that he lacked a clear vision. Now it’s his closest supporters. “It would be unnatural, it would be strange, it would be precipitate, it would be superficial if he had all his vision intact and his answers set up after three months — that would be absurd”, said Neil Kinnock on Sunday.

So sayeth the optimists. No longer any pretence of a vision or programme. Just a promise that one will appear at some point in the future. The mañana defence. If Ed’s critics are trapped in the past, his supporters have become trapped in the future.

Leader is not a title; it’s an aura. At the moment, Ed Miliband does not carry it. The lack of respect shown by his shadow cabinet colleagues has become an embarrassment. Ed Balls’ offhand dismissal of his PMQs performance. Alan Johnson’s casual rejection of his stance on issues from tax to education to party reform. “When I’m in the room with Ed Balls or David Miliband, I want to listen what they have to say. I think I’ll learn something”, one shadow minister told me last week. “But”, she added, “when I’m in a room with Ed I’m just bored. It seems pointless”.

Shadow cabinet meetings are reduced to abstract discussions about “direction”, and a series of powerpoint presentations. All speeches now have to be cleared in advance with the leader’s office. Except there is no one to read them, and shadow ministers receive no feedback. Policy development has stalled, as teams wait for some framework in which to formulate ideas.

Meanwhile, our search for a strategic narrative has degenerated into farce. First, we were told that Labour in opposition would hit the ground running. Then we were told it would be a marathon not a sprint. Then we were told: forget that, it’s a sprintathon, and started rushing after every Lib Dem in sight. Jackie Ashley described this as, “the long game and the short game, and the ‘now’ game”. I’ve got an alternative. It’s called the “making it up as you go along” game.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, we were told we had to recapture the white working class. Then it was the squeezed-middle. Then the Lib Dems. Our target demographic is now your average Millwall-supporting, Mondeo-driving, Greenpeace activist.

“But look at the polls”, cry the believers. “We are in front”. No, we’re not. Not a single poll I have seen gives us a lead more significant than the margin of error. And if anyone thinks that an election this Thursday would see Labour secure 40% of the vote they need their head examining.

But still the band plays on. “Talk to Labour ministers, and most are still so shell-shocked they can’t see the red carpet of opportunity stretching out before them”, wrote Polly Toynbee last week. “Labour looks set fair, whatever its own depressives think. Only mighty blunders of great idiocy can stop Miliband’s party winning the argument with enough voters”.

This sort of stuff should really set the alarm bells ringing. We lost the previous election because we were on a different page to the electorate. Now we are in serous danger of entering a parallel universe.

Debates about tactics, strategy and ideology are one thing. But what is happening in the party at the moment represents not a political divergence, but a divergence of reality. It is as if a collective madness is taking hold. I cannot see how anyone can seriously believe that tying Labour to a high tax, pro-student, anti-police, anti-consumer, anti-business programme is the right path for the party to pursue.

But some do. And with equal passion and clarity. They see a permanent 50p tax rate as appealing successfully to people’s sense of social justice, while I only see “Labour Tax Bombshell” posters. They see a vibrant, spontaneous movement of young voters and their parents, where I see the re-birth of a dangerous, hard left factionalism. They see a popular anti-capitalist backlash, where I see our reputation for economic credibility draining down a Regent Street gutter.

Neil thinks he’s got his party back. I can’t recognise it. Polly thinks we’re gliding to victory. I think we’re stumbling to defeat. Tom thinks our glass is half-full. I think it’s laying in pieces on the bar-room floor.

We can’t all be right. But at this stage there is no right. No wrong. There is only belief.

I wish I could retain it. Feel the optimism, and the excitement and the magic.

But I can’t. At the moment, I do not believe. Pessimism has vanquished optimism. Foreboding has banished excitement. Cold reality has cast out the magic.

I can no longer hear the bell ring. All I can do is offer up a glass to those who can.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut

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64 Responses to “The left is losing its marbles”

  1. Ryan Carter says:

    Speedy well done mate everything I wanted to say.
    and too add the votes of don’t knows on opinion polls are split how they voted last time meaning that more of the don’t know vote would land back on the lib’s than perhaps would, and more Tory as a percentage than that which would fall back onto labour. So on the whole it’s not such a dismal picture is it.

  2. Thomas Clark says:

    My own opinion is given time that Ed will make a good leader. my fear is that the Lib.dems. implode and we end uo with anelection that at this stage I see as unwinnable for Labour and even if we did win we are not ready for Government. I am not convinced anyway that we would pick up dissafected Lib.Dems. who are just as likely to ber scared inti voting Tory. We do however have no option but to get behind Ed in the short to mid term.

  3. Major Plonquer says:

    Of course, if the Tories were to call a General election next week the Labour Party would be facing the receivers, not the voters.

    After 100 odd years of spending other people’s money, when the Labour Party put their hand in their own pocket, all they’ll find is Balls.

    If a GE were called, Labour’s financial mismanagement would be laid bare for all to see. Again. So yes, it’s not such a dismal picture.

  4. Grumpy Old Man says:

    Dear Dan. You are absolutely spot on in your summation. The present situation of Labour stems directly from that meeting in the Granita restuarant and is the true legacy of Brown and Blair. Labours factions are determined to have their internecine war and nothing anyone can do or say will stop them. I’m a life-long Tory, but even so I can take little comfort out of Labour’s implosion. The thought of Dave unopposed for 10-15 years is too hard to come to terms with.
    I suggest you archive this piece and dust it down for a reprint in 10 years’ time. Maybe someone will take it on board then.

  5. Westgate Hotel says:

    In the last few days we have had another classic example by Ed Miliband of a lack of direction on a policy issue. On BBC Wales he praised the Welsh Assembly’s policy of subsidising Welsh student fees whilst supporting the imposition of full fees on students from England who attend university in Wales. Even the Labour First Minister on the radio proudly claims that the policy was unfair to English students. We now have the bizarre situation where Ed Miliband supports a policy which will see a working class kid from a Labour held constituency in England paying £9000 a year whilst the kid whose father is a millionaire will see their fees at Oxbridge limited to just £3250 just because they happened to have lived in Wales for 3 years. Whatever happened to Labour’s belief that we should all be treated equally no matter where we live. It also raises the question of if the policy is right for Welsh students will Ed Miliband give a commitment that Labour will introduce it for students in England. It’s yet another example of policy not being thought through and the continuation of the spin and soundbite culture which did so much damage to Labour in the past.

  6. Jim says:

    FWIW my tuppence on the Labour leadership. Given the election drubbing what was needed was a strategic thinker / organiser / leader to reinvent and shape policy over the next few years ready for the next election. If that person was also electable as a prime minister then that would be a bonus, if not then there’s some years for the person to emerge. Unfortunately what we’ve got is netiher the reinventer or the electable prime minister.

    As for recent polls. If Labour can’t work itself a decent lead at this time – with a Tory-led coalition making serious cuts – then that tells its own story. Given recent performance the only hope for Labour is that sentiment shifts as the cuts actually start biting.

    Surely the wider problem we (Labour) has is one of finding a position that a) it is comfortable in and b) enough of the electrorate identify with to win an election. The biggest problem is that most polls suggest two thirds of the electorate agree that the cuts are necessary (at the moment). I believe that alongside EdM’s poor execution this is the main reason why Labour is unable to land any proper blows on the government – because the government knows that it has a good portion of the electorate on its side. It is also the main problem Labour needs to wrestle with strategically – if Labour moves further left and more anti-cuts, particularly without putting forward a credible plan of its own, then this would be the best electoral gift the tories could wish for.

  7. Johnthestudent says:

    Dan Hodges,

    I disagree.

  8. Peter Robertson says:

    Richard Blogger says:
    December 21, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    Right, so the unions didn’t get Ed elected and he has the full and whole hearted support of the PLP and Labour Party members. I have no problem with affliates they had as much right to vote in the Election as any Labour Party member but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with the way they voted, if I have a problem with it it’s because only 13% of those elgible to vote actually did and I’d hazard a good guess that those 13% are of left wing persuation.

    My argument is Tory led is it?

    The one thing I would say to anyone that voted for Ed believing him to be ‘Red Ed’: Labour didn’t lose the GE because it wasn’t left wing enough. Unforunately, and I know it’s hard for some people to take, the general public like their political parties to be of the centre and their leaders to be be of the centre. He’ll never win a GE.


  9. Duncan says:

    What exactly did the unnamed shadow cabinet minister hope to learn from David Miliband? Remember this is a man who managed to become foreign secretary without knowing that Mugabe had a knighthood. Not exactly a font of general knowledge.

  10. Chris says:

    @Peter Robertson

    “Labour didn’t lose the GE because it wasn’t left wing enough.”

    Labour didn’t lose the GE because it wasn’t right wing enough. These labels don’t matter, the vast majority of the voting public don’t understand them, what matters is if voters think a particular policy is the right thing to do.

    “Unforunately, … the general public like their political parties to be of the centre and their leaders to be be of the centre.”

    Again this label of centre vs right or left is meaningless when talking about actual voters. What matters is whether a leader is at where mainstream opinion is or can successfully move mainstream opinion to where they’re at. Take the 50p tax rate, Blair said this is what lost Labour the election; which is patently bollocks, it was a popular policy and would have been more so if it had been campaigned on. At the next GE it won’t be mainstream opinion to cut a tax that only affects the top 1% of earners.

    “He’ll never win a GE.”

    Utter bullshit and something they said about Thatcher throughout the 70s.

  11. Merseymike says:

    Oh dear. Here we go again. Baby Dan is like a Petulant child who just can’t accept that he didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas . To be frank the Blair government was only successful because the Tories were unelectable. They made a lot of mistakes and were largely a disappointment. Rather than looking back to a past government which eventually failed we should be looking forward and that means accepting not only the leader we have but that David Miliband will never hold that post. I doubt he will even be an MP at the time of the next election. As for a 50% top tax rate if you really don’t believe in it then go and join the Tories . Your views would fit there very well

  12. YoungLeedsLabourite says:

    I agree that to most people labels such as left and right are largely meaningless, but I disagree that the public like their political parties to be in the centre. What is the point of two parties with slightly different looks on things, the Labour party is becoming (or has become over the past 15 years) pretty much a clone of the tory party.

    The labour leadership need to be bold, they need to stand up and push for key policies that could be considered ‘left wing’ but not because they are left wing but because the public wants them. If labour was the party to be tough on the banks, to ensure that the tax loopholes were closed, that everyone in society gets equal chances and that schools and hospitals are well funded then they will gain support off a lot of people. Actions speak louder than words, perhaps having Ed Miliband out on the streets protesting would look fake and staged but at the few demonstations I have been to regarding the cuts (I am a 6th form student) there has been no labour representation, young people to a large extent feel isolated from mainstream politics and many willingly take socialist worker banners and chant slogans because that’s what they feel the only way of representation is.

    As a party member who has recently joined I’ve been impressed by the organisation at local level and have taken part in events such as leafletting and early canvassing for the local elections in May, but at national level there seems to be a lack of clear concise messages. In my opinion there need to be more young people involved in the decision making, and if not in the devision making then certainly the organisation and distribution sections of the party, people with lots of energy and drive. These people are also the ones that use social networking the most, what most politicians don’t realise is that by putting themself on the internet they make compete fools of themselves and nobody likes them any more because of it, I personally feel patronised by it all.

    That’s my 2 cents anyway.

  13. Paul says:

    You forgot to heap praise on Cameron. Otherwise yes, classic Blairite betrayal of the leader of the Labour Party, led by Blair himself. I can’t believe these are the same people who have banged on so much about loyalty over the past fifteen years.

  14. Geraint says:

    The last thing Labour needs is to lurch to the right. We are not a Tory party, and trying to out Tory the Tories and Liberals would be our political death. We lost millions of voters since 1997, and since 2005 every election we have stood in we have lost (local, European, devovled and general). That saids something about the longitivity of New “Labour” and the rightward lurch that the Blairites want to drag Labour party down.

    I joint Labour because I believe in social justice, fairness, equality and redistrubiton of Wealth. Dare I say, I joint Labour because I am a socialist! As did the vast majority of Labour supporters. We cannot achieve this by being Tory-lite, and indeed New “Labour” and Blairism totally failed to deliver social justice, and toally failed to tackle child poverty. Ed Miliband is right, things need to change in the Labour Party, and we need to rebuild our progressive coalition and re-attach ourself to the sense of purpose that we should have.

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