The baffling recovery of Teflon Labour and Unpopular Ed
By Benedict Brogan Politics Last updated: November 18th, 2013
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Despite Falkirk and all its other failings, the party could still be heading back to No 10
Politics sometimes throws up great mysteries. Why does public spending always rise and never fall? How did Gordon Brown ever become Prime Minister? Why is David Cameron still clinging to his pledge on overseas aid?
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Nothing, however, is quite so head-scratching at the moment as the success of the Labour Party. The Tories are certainly puzzled – and terrified – by it. So are plenty of Labour people, many of whom can’t quite believe that things are going so well for Her Majesty’s Opposition. On current trends, it is entirely rational to expect that it will be returned with an overall majority in 2015, or will at least finish as the largest party, and that Ed Miliband will become prime minister.
That Labour should be in such a strong position is baffling, for reasons that scarcely need sketching out. How can it be that a party widely blamed for the nation’s ills – let alone one led by a politician who commands so little public respect – is in a position to measure the curtains for Downing Street? Soundly rejected, only to be welcomed back a term later: if it came to pass, a Labour win would deserve an award for most unlikely political comeback.
The party’s resilience in the face of embarrassments that would floor a lesser political movement is particularly impressive. Yesterday it suspended as a member a crack-smoking churchman who boasted – in between explaining to MPs his part in the collapse of the Co-op Bank, with which the party has strong links – of throwing drug-fuelled gay orgies. The story of Rev Paul Flowers, the Co-op’s former chairman, speaks volumes about how the financial sector came unstuck under Labour. Yet while it is almost too outlandish to be taken seriously, it also serves to illustrate the party’s Teflon quality: at the moment, nothing sticks.
David Cameron has tried to brush aside this inconvenient truth. So have plenty of commentators – myself included – who hold to the idea that come 2015, when the electorate is confronted with a choice between Mr Miliband and Mr Cameron, between a party that got so many things wrong and two parties that have tried (with considerable success) to make things right, it will make the grown-up choice to keep the Tory leader in Downing Street.
The economy is improving rapidly, and it is likely that earnings will start to outstrip prices at some point next year. The election campaign, then, should be fought against a backdrop of Coalition success, with enough of a feel-good factor to suggest more of the same would be worth having.
Being an optimist is tough, however, when the polls say otherwise. Collectively, they put Labour about eight points ahead. A gap that had been closing since the summer, presumably thanks to economic good news, has been widening again. The Opposition is back in the territory where, because of the in-built bias of the electoral system, it can count on being in power.
Psephologists will insist that there is plenty of buried detail that contradicts the headline figures. A ComRes poll on Sunday, for example, gave Labour a six-point lead over the Tories (35 per cent to 29 per cent). But of those questioned, rather more than half – 53 per cent – could not imagine Mr Miliband as prime minister. Still, the bottom line remains inescapable. As one of Mr Cameron’s closest advisers put it to me: “If the election were held today, we’d be stuffed.”
One way to work out why is to consider Labour through two different lenses: as an Opposition, and as a party of government. On the former count, it has proved itself to be effective, ruthless, cunning and lucky – but the successes that are driving it towards power are entirely attributable to its ability to operate outside government, to criticise and carp without offering concrete suggestions of its own.
Consider Labour as a party that might once again hold office, and the verdict cannot by any measure be favourable. Indeed, it is the way it is handling itself in opposition that may do it most harm as polling day approaches.
Take the Falkirk vote-rigging scandal. One might be tempted to wish that sometimes, just sometimes, the Tory machine showed the kind of bruising ruthlessness that Labour and its friends in the unions have displayed in the pursuit of control and power. Leaks of internal reports show not just that Unite was packing the constituency party in order to secure the seat for one of its own, but that the party knew and approved.
An obvious criticism is that Falkirk reveals the extent of union control of Labour’s internal affairs. But the apparent lack of organisation and discipline under Mr Miliband are equally damning. What we discover is a surprising degree of chaos and internal confusion about who is in charge of what, and how a fairly fundamental process – the selection of candidates for safe seats – should be run.
The excuse that this took place in Scotland – a political world apart from the high command in London – will not do. For we hear similar complaints about Mr Miliband’s Westminster operation. It is strangely reminiscent of the factionalism and dysfunction that marked how Mr Brown ran things, albeit without his unique personality flaws. Yet despite constant hammering from the Tories, the extent of the unions’ grip on Mr Miliband seems to make little impression on the public.
On the economy, the same split-image applies. Mr Miliband’s emphasis on living standards, and in particular his offer of a temporary freeze on energy prices, are being credited for Labour’s autumn recovery. As an Opposition leader, he is good at finding a totemic issue and exploiting it to the full. The ploy has been so successful that – despite promising publicly that they would not match gimmicks with gimmicks – the Tories have been scrambling to put together their own wheezes in reply.
It’s here that Labour’s success is particularly galling to the Conservatives. Events on the wider economic front have proved Ed Balls wrong, and George Osborne right. It turns out that it was possible to cut spending and promote growth. So on the basis of Labour’s record in power, and its mistakes in Opposition, the economic case against Eds Miliband and Balls appears unanswerable. No wonder the word the Labour leader’s economic adviser found to describe the shadow chancellor’s position was “nightmare”. Yet to judge by the public’s indifference to the detail of the economic policy argument, a policy that is fundamentally wrong can be made to look good if it is founded on opportunism.
You may find all this an insufficient explanation for the strange rise of Labour. No doubt Mr Miliband’s well-played tunes about an energy price freeze, nasty plutocrats and more free money for poor people are having an effect. They have certainly secured his position on the Left.
Tories say all their polling shows the voters think he’s weak. Which may be true – but why have his populist lunges over energy, or the bankers, or Rupert Murdoch resonated? If voters are actually listening to what he’s saying, then it may be that the solution to the mystery of the Opposition’s current success lies with the Tories. Could it be that the question underlying politics at the moment is not, in fact, why Labour is doing so well, but why the Conservatives are doing so badly?
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