Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Britain needs Labour to unleash attack dogs

Depending on how you measure it, the UK is about eighth or ninth in the world in income per person per year. So it’s quite an indictment that 500,000 people are now dependent on food banks. Over two and a half million people are unemployed, but a million more are on ‘zero-hour’ contracts: they have to be available for work but with no guarantee that they will have anything to do or receive any pay. Not unemployed, perhaps, but barely employed.

One in six children lives in poverty, a figure that is climbing rapidly after the decline that occurred under the last government. And some of the poorest people in the country, dependent on benefits, many disabled, are seeing the amount they receive cut because they have a spare room in their homes – but 96% of them have no alternative accommodation to which they could move.

A state of affairs so shameful should spell disaster for the government presiding over it. It’s true that those suffering most are also the groups least likely to vote, but there is a huge layer of people not quite as vulnerable but who are finding their living standards squeezed, the ‘squeezed middle’ as the Labour leadership calls it. There are even others who are financially more secure but ashamed at what is being done, in their name, to the most vulnerable.

So it’s galling that the Labour opposition, after over a year with an opinion poll lead of around 11% – by no means outstanding for an opposition half way through a parliament but a reasonable platform – has failed to build on it and instead sunk back to around a 6% lead. Given the tendency of the electorate to swing back towards the incumbents as an election approaches, that’s perilously close to defeat levels.

What’s going wrong?

It isn’t that the Labour leadership, of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, are preaching some kind of wild radicalism that would put off middle-ground voters. On the contrary, they’re even committing to respecting the budget cuts being made by the present government, and only to spending more for the purposes of investment.

Their message overall is that the vast majority of people are paying over the odds for economic policies which don’t guarantee economic health, but will massively benefit the wealthiest. It’s a perfectly sensible position and one that should be generating increasing support.

Ed Miliband
Probably a nice guy, possibly a great Prime Minister
But he needs to be less of the former to become the latter
No, what seems to be the problem is that they’re simply not displaying the kind of strength voters appreciate. Ed Miliband gave a disastrous interview in April in which he came across as unbriefed about his own policies on VAT, and since then has had trouble taking the initiative on economic matters. Then it emerged that the Unite union, one of Labour’s most important, and above all most generous, contributors might have been trying to influence the selection of a parliamentary candidate in Falkirk by devious means. Miliband decided to take on the union, which might seem resolute, except that it’s rather a matter of sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting.

What’s more, it led to Miliband having to part company with his campaign manager, the feisty and effective Tom Watson.

Meanwhile, the Tories have wasted no time signing up and unleashing their attack dogs.

First they appointed Lynton Crosby as their campaign manager. He won an enviable reputation as a highly effective political operator in his native Austrialia. There has been a major scandal about his possible conflict of interests (he is also a consultant to tobacco companies and the government has gone notably soft on them recently), but somehow the Party is weathering the storm. Meanwhile, one can see his hand behind some recent hard-hitting campaigns, for instance to use the Falkirk miseries to present Labour as divided and in hock to the unions.

Now they’ve also recruited Jim Messina from the States, who’s responsible for what has come to be thought of as the most homophobic campaign advert in US history.

Crosby and Messina aren’t going to be pulling their punches.

And what has Labour’s response been? Over a month after Tom Watson’s departure, the Party hasn’t yet appointed a new campaign manager. It’s as if the two Eds think that being sensible, moderate and reasonable is enough to win elections.

They need to think again. This is no time for Mr Nice Guy. Those qualities may make for a great government, but they don’t help you get into a position to form one. They need to expose the present administration as what it is: without either competence or compassion. They need to show again and again, on issue after issue, how they fail and how they damage everything we hold dear. That’s what a Crosby or a Messina would be doing if Labour had them. It’s what the Eds need to learn to do.

What the country needs is another Labour government like the one Clement Attlee led in 1945. One of the great reforming governments of the twentieth century. That’s the kind of government that can tackle the rising child poverty, the assault on the disabled, the relegation of millions into unemployment or precarious employment.

But that will only be possible if Labour’s leaders can find the relentless drive and focus that marked a Tony Blair or, in the sixties and 70s, a Harold Wilson.

Leaders with the vision and the principle of an Attlee, but the election-winning capabilities of a Blair or a Wilson? An elusive combination. Can the Eds rise to the challenge.

Maybe. But sadly the jury’s still firmly out.


Steve Price said...

The pendulum has swung so far to the right we need a strong left wing "Thatcher" to present a radical agenda of fundamental reform. Renationalisation of utilities. Strong suppression of financial greed etc All these would be popular. Labour are missing a real opportunity

David Beeson said...

Action on unbridled greed would certainly be as effective a campaigning message as it's necessary as a measure. I'm not sure that the utilities being public or private is a question that has much in the way of legs any more. Protecting the NHS against further privatisation, and rolling back what's happened, is vital, on the other hand.

But above all - Labour needs to find the kind of drive Thatcher had on the other side: passion, energy, excitement. That would inspire. And win the votes that give the opportunity to implement a programme to be proud of.