Sunday, 30 March 2014
Labour must find the courage to be distinctive again or face extinction.
Last week the veteran Labour MP John Mann warned his party not to be ‘too clever’ and urged leader Ed Milliband to be ‘much clearer’ in setting out their policies.
Speaking on the BBC’s Pinaar’s Politics radio programme he said Labour needed to be ‘bolder’ and more ‘unambiguous’ in its communication with voters. The comments came on the back of polls for the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times showed the gap between Labour and the Tories had shrunk to a single percentage point.
Mr Mann said it would be ‘naïve’ to think the polls represented anything other than a ‘warning shot’ over Labour’s bows, he added that the party needed to be ‘much clearer and simpler in putting across what our alternative is and what we stand for.’
Asked about the disappointing poll results on the BBBC’s Andrew Marr Show Chuka Umunna, tipped by some as a future party leader, said ‘frankly we obsess over polls, we wouldn’t be doing our job properly if we didn’t. What matters is how people vote.’
He added that since the last election Labour had gained ‘thousands of members’ and that ‘people are seriously talking about us not winning;’ maybe the people you meet at dinner parties are Mr Umunna, the people I meet at the bus stop aren’t; so there might be just a touch of complacency there.
Over the past week things haven’t got much better, several left leaning think tanks including the Fabian Society, Policy Network and Progress co-signed a letter to the Guardian expressing their concerns about Ed Milliband’s leadership. To cap it all the man himself then got bashed out of the park by Citizen Dave at PMQ’s.
This all made me think of something that happened at the 2007 Labour conference, then an eager constituency delegate I pitched up at an evening event to hear an unknown junior minister speak. To say my expectations weren’t high is an understatement, such things are usually dowdy affairs distinguished only by the quality of the buffet and the likelihood of getting a free drink.
It turned out to be a truly remarkable evening, the speaker was funny, self- deprecating and by the decaffeinated standards of contemporary British politics he was even moderately charismatic. Saying he come over as a prime minister in waiting is going it a bit, but to have had such a jaded audience eating out of his hand, which he did, takes some doing.
His name, if you hadn’t guessed, was Ed Milliband; which prompts the question what on earth went wrong between then and now?
Since winning the party leadership in 2010 Ed Milliband’s performance has been at best poor and all too often disastrous. He has been presented with a series of open goals and missed every one, his public persona is leaden and awkward and the party’s policies are a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
Occasionally, like when he pledged that a Labour government would cap the amount the big six energy companies can charge their customers, there is a glimmer of hope, but time and again he has allowed the initiative to slip away from him like a bar of soap in the bath. As a result faith groups and the Greens have made much of the running on social justice and UKIP are fast building a bedrock of support amongst disaffected working class voters.
Labour, by contrast, seem becalmed, bobbing about miles from land firing off flares in all directions but signally failing to give any clear signal to the voters on the shore. A little over a year out from the next election and with no clear picture of what would make a Britain governed by Labour different the only person to blame is Ed Milliband.
Under his leadership the party has consistently failed to show the courage necessary to bring forward distinctive new policies. Instead they show every sign of going to the country next year with a manifesto that occupies the place on the middle ground usually taken by road kill.
Ed Milliband and his advisers have failed to notice that a seismic change has taken place in British politics, the old tribal loyalties are crumbling away. What will take their place isn’t clear yet, but for all their ‘stick in the mud’ image the Tories seem to grasp this if only as yet at a subconscious level, largely because wealth seldom struggles to find a voice.
Labour need to rediscover the ability to be brave and original in their policies, people are tired of the same over-rehearsed clichés being trotted out by politicians so similar you can only tell their party affiliation by the colour tie they wear. Voters are crying out for a radical alternative that will shake up the moth eaten status quo.
The bad news for Labour is that they aren’t going to win the next election; the good news is that nobody else is either, not by an outright majority anyway. For the foreseeable future coalition looks like being the order of the day, in which case the parties involved will need to have a clear idea of what they stand for and who they represent.
At the moment Labour appear to have neither, if they can’t find a genuine sense of purpose and, as John Mann said, a clear way of articulating it to a jaded electorate they may no longer have a reason to exist.