Friday, 23 March 2012

Labour And The Next Election

Labour's next general election manifesto should be writing itself.

Not even half way through this parliament and the coalition seem content enough to hand the opposition a whole raft of controversial policies in which it can be attacked on.

Political gifts, neatly wrapped with an equal number of blue and yellow ribbons, are no doubt being stored in the cupboards of Labour HQ, ready to be taken out and ripped apart in the run up to 2015.

But, something's not quite right.

Despite the great avalanche of opposition to the NHS bill, seemingly from anyone who's ever set foot in a hospital, the trebling of university tuition fees, the attempts to dismantle the welfare state, one benefit at a time, all made possible by an ideological zeal that puts eliminating the budget deficit above all else, Labour isn't making the kind of headway it should.

Whilst it's still far too early to be thinking about the next election, progress in the polls can come incrementally; May's local elections a good way to start. That, and a few elected Labour mayors wouldn't do any harm.

Yet, surely there must be a feeling that if many of the government's policies really are that unpopular, why aren't the opposition benefiting?

A number of reasons can be put forward.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that the central tenet propagated by the government has been pretty much swallowed by the electorate: the urgency of deficit reduction has been accepted as a necessary evil.

So, and most crucially, has the (incorrect, on so many levels) assumption that Britain's shaky finances are a direct result of Labour's overspending and mishandling of the economy.

The fact that most of us on the left know this argument to be flawed no longer matters. Convincing the electorate of this from the moment the coalition took office has been a political masterstroke. It is from there that the government have been able to construct its narrative and taken an axe to the public sector.

Secondly, not all the government's policies are as disliked (enough) as the left would like to think. Capping benefits chimes with voters. Whilst higher tuition fees isn't exactly a voter winner, it's not really a vote loser either; those being directly affected the cohort least likely to vote.

Thirdly, and most frustratingly for Labour, a poll this week found support for its economic policies, but not for those hoping to enact them: 42% believing the economy in safer hands with Cameron and Osborne, against 25% for the Eds.

The fact that the economy, unemployment, and how secure and confident people feel about their present and future, will almost certainly play a leading role in the next election, makes this a worrying figure.

But, it's the voting intention stats that should most concern Labour. Leaving aside overall support, only 59% of its own supporters would give unconditional backing to the party on election day.

If the party harbours any hopes of an outright victory it desperately needs to seduce its own voters first. This particularly applies to its newly-found backers, recently escaped from the Lib Dems.

Once it's done this, it can get on with the far easier task of retoxifying the Tory brand; shouldn't be too difficult.

Highlighting, and then highlighting again, how their policies have explicitly targeted society's most vulnerable, how they've trampled over a British institution, with their needless meddling of the NHS, and that their "green" agenda was nothing more than a clever marketing trick designed to show the public their 'new' and cuddly side.

The final, and trickiest part, is to make the next election all about policies and not personality. A cruel quip perhaps, but as things stand, Ed Miliband just isn't seen as prime ministerial, and suffers from what some have labelled a "credibility gap."

Coming out with daring, original, and yes populist, ideas, will help close this gap.

This article was first published by LabourList on Friday 23 March 2012

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