Saturday, 6 July 2013

Try opportunism: at least it works

Opportunism always seems terribly distasteful. Unfortunately, it’s highly effective.

In Britain today we have a government that assured us, when campaigning for office, that the only way to emerge from the financial crisis was to reduce the national debt, whatever the price, to allow for growth to take off. Three years later, the only growth has been in the debt itself, though the price has been high: 300,000 more children plunged into poverty, healthcare costs climbing while resources and quality fall, education in disarray.

In those circumstances, you’d expect the opposition to be making serious gains. Instead, after having moved ahead by as much 11-13 points in the polls, itself not a comfortable cushion two years before an election, the Labour has drifted down to as low as 5-6 points recently. It looks now as though the fall has stopped and the lead is back up at around 8 eights, but that’s still low.

Against a government without either competence or compassion.

What the government has is a good sense of PR and a lot of friends in the media. That’s made it possible to pull off a remarkable propaganda stunt: they’ve persuaded too many voters that the financial crisis is the doing of the Labour Party. This is a view they hold despite the fact that Labour wasn’t in office in the US, in which most of the toxic banking took place, let alone in Ireland, Spain or Greece which were among its most badly-hit victims.

Even so the Labour leadership of the ‘Eds’, Miliband and Balls, should really be landing a few more blows on a government with so weak a track record. Which makes it disappointing to see how often the Eds seem to be on the back foot, defending their own position rather than attacking the government’s.

There are those who talk of keeping Labour’s powder dry until nearer the next election. But there’s not a lot point in having lots of dry powder if you don’t start firing it until the battle’s lost.

This is the backdrop to the latest scandal to hit Labour. The largest Trade Union, Unite, which as you’d expect is proving a major force for disunity, has been caught trying to stuff its own members into the Labour Party in Falkirk in Scotland. Those new members would have a vote in the selection of a candidate to fight the forthcoming by-election in the constituency, and Unite no doubt expects them to choose its favoured candidate.

Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union.
A stick for the Tories to beat Labour? Or – the opposite?
It hardly made the show more savoury to discover that some of these new Labour members didn’t even know that they’d applied.

Manna from heaven for the Tories, who have leaped on the opportunity to brand Miliband as the puppet of the unions, a mere front man while real decisions are taken in unpublicised meetings of union barons behind closed doors. It doesn’t help that Miliband’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party, ahead of his brother, owed a lot to the votes of Unite delegates.

Now you might expect a counter-attack on the secret decisions that really affect our daily lives, such as those taken in the boardrooms of banks or major industries. But the Eds are no more inclined to tackle those guys than the present government is, or indeed the previous governments led by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

So it was fascinating to read this morning’s news that Miliband is referring the shenanigans in Falkirk to the police, for investigation of possible criminality. That’s a striking move. It looks like he’s throwing down the gauntlet to Unite, biting a hand he wants to prove doesn’t feed him.

Now suddenly the talk is of his breaking the link between the Unions and Labour. That would be a historic move, since it was the Unions that set Labour up in the first place. They’re also the Party’s major source of funds. Now, while I’m not always happy about the way the Unions use the influence this buys them, I’m pretty sure that things would be a lot worse if Labour found new sources of finance from nameless billionaires, just like the Tory Party. Certainly, I can’t see how they’d long stay different from the Tories.

But I don’t really see the link being broken: there’s too much at stake. What’s more likely is some kind of showdown followed by a compromise in which the Union voice is reduced further in favour of ordinary members. That might allow Miliband to emerge looking rather stronger and more decisive than he does today.

In other words, he might finally start to look like a fighter, but not by taking on his opponents, whom he seems to have trouble confronting, but some dubious elements among his own supporters.

Which strikes me as pretty opportunist. But it worked superbly for Tony Blair: rather than concentrating his fire on the Tories, in the run up to his first election victory, he focused on repealing Clause 4 of the Labour constitution that committed the Party to nationalisation of major industries. By taking on forces within his own party, he won himself a reputation as a strong man and someone the political centre could trust. Three landslide victories testify to the success of the tactic.

Is Miliband doing the same thing? It feels a bit like it. Which is ugly but, regrettably, I find myself holding my nose and hoping he succeeds. After all, Unite’s underhand behaviours isn
’t smart or helpful, and if slapping down its leader Len McCluskey is what it takes to make Labour look like a party of government again, it may be a price worth paying just to get rid of the present dismal shower.

If that sounds like opportunism, it is. And if that seems distasteful, well, as I said at the beginning, that’s what opportunism is like.

It’s almost enough to make one cynical about politics.

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