Sunday, 4 November 2012

Fancy footwork over Europe won’t win the next election for Labour.

This has been another bad week for David Cameron’s beleaguered government. On Wednesday they suffered a humiliating defeat in the commons over the EU budget at the hands of a coalition of Tory rebels and Labour MPs.

The Tory rebels wanted a real terms budget cut for 2014/2020; the Labour Party wanted to land a punch that would make the PM stagger against the ropes. It was a marriage of political convenience that produced a result of 307 to 294 against the government and could come back to haunt all concerned.

There followed something of a ‘spat’ between the Conservative and Lib Dem halves of the coalition, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Thursday there was now ‘no hope’ of a budget cut, something about which his party was entirely comfortable. Chancellor George Osborne though later told the BBC’s Today programme that the UK was still ‘at the beginning of negotiations’ on the EU budget.

He added that although he wasn’t saying ‘Nick Clegg is wrong. I’m saying we’re beginning a negotiation. Let’s see where that negotiation leads.’ The Chancellor might not have said so out loud, but he was certainly implying that Nick Clegg was wrong and that any negotiation would be more likely to result in a cut to the budget than any other outcome.

Thanks to the division within the coalition Labour are riding high, their poll ratings are healthy and PMQ’s has stopped being a weekly exercise in humiliation for leader Ed Milliband. In fact this week he was able to raise the ghost of our own dear PM being more than a little like his inglorious predecessor John Major, a hapless dupe clinging to the tail of the party he is supposed to be leading as it goes wild over Europe.

About the only thing the coalition seems to be able to agree on these days is how unhappy they are that the opposition have learnt to be sneaky. Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Labour had ‘taken a step further away from government’ by siding with the Tory rebels. Nick Clegg called their position ‘dishonest’ and ‘hypocritical’; adding that although it may have been seen by some people as ‘clever opposition politics’ it was not ‘the behaviour of a party serious about government.’

If you can ignore the vintage of sour grapes being trodden out on the government benches Nick Clegg does, surprisingly, have a point. It must be hugely satisfying for Ed Milliband and his advisors to see the coalition coming so spectacularly off the rails, it must bring back fond memories of the nineties when another Tory government tore itself to pieces over Europe letting Labour sweep in with a huge majority.

Unfortunately in politics, as in so many other things, the shiniest fruit often has the bitterest taste. It would be a serious mistake if Labour imagined that the wider public are as impressed with their nifty footwork in the voting lobby as they are; trust me they aren’t. To the average voter this will look like so much cheap point scoring, they may have opinions on Europe and whether or not we should be in or out; but most aren’t obsessed with the subject.

There is also the small matter of this being actually a less adroit move than it at first appears, siding with Tory Euro sceptics will produce little in the way of long term advantage for Labour, their new found friends will be unlikely to reciprocate the favour of supporting Labour in the voting lobbies. The whole thing is the political equivalent of a grubby one night stand that will only return to embarrass both parties at the most inconvenient moments.

What Ed Milliband needs to do is get back to what he was trying to do when he was booed by the crowd at the recent TUC march through London, talking about the priorities that will have to inform the fiscal restraint practiced by a Labour government. He needs to talk about how he intends to be more realistic about the sort of country the UK is now, as opposed to what it might have been in the past; maybe not a ‘great power’ but one with the potential to be a great society.

As the cliché goes it is governments that lose elections rather than oppositions that win them, however the make the transition from one to the other effectively a party needs a clear idea of what it stands for and what it wants to achieve.

The mistake made by New Labour in 1997 was relying too much on the fact that the electorate was tired of the squabbling Tories; as a result they squandered a huge mandate and an equally large store of good will in return for little in the way of achievements. Despite a rocky start Ed Milliband has a chance of putting Labour back into government at the first attempt, but to do so he must learn from the mistakes of the past and devote as much time to serious thinking as he does to fancy political footwork.

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