Labour must ignore the voices of desperation

Written by: David Clark on 30 March, 2012
Filed under Democracy

The main internal obstacle to a Labour victory at the next election isn’t Old Labour or New Labour; it’s Desperate Labour.

Desperate Labour has been out in force today, mostly grumbling in the shadows, but sometimes screaming in the sunlight. The sky is falling in! The sky is falling in!

The reason, of course, is the party’s loss of the Bradford West by-election to George Galloway, which they want everyone to see as a better reflection of what the country thinks than national opinion polls showing Labour’s biggest leads for donkey’s years. There you have it; George Galloway is going to be our next prime minister. Something must be done!

Let’s be serious for a moment. There were many parents to this defeat: rivalries in the local Pakistani community, a desire to lash out at conventional politics and long-standing problems with the way Labour relates to ethnic minority communities. For far too long the Labour machine has been happy to conscript these communities en bloc at successive elections, only to ignore them in between.

Now elements of the same machine want to conscript Bradford West and its voters to their latest pet scheme. They want to use it as an excuse to re-fight the leadership contest they lost two years ago in the hope that another leader will give them a short cut back to their ministerial limousines. Same old machine. Same old cynicism.

Desperate Labour thinks that all the party needs to do is shadow the Tories and outmanoeuvre them with spin, triangulation and a few well crafted lines to take. They think the base would follow because it has ‘nowhere else to go’, despite the evidence of Bradford West, Scotland and the localised successes of the Greens.

To those crying out for change, they propose more of the same: a superficial PR strategy harnessed to a minimalist politics based on naked self-interest. It would fail because it would deserve to fail.

There are no short cuts back to power for a party smashed like Labour was in 2010, only a long and difficult uphill fight. The starting point has to be a recognition that conventional politics is broken and that the tools of the past are not just redundant, but part of the problem. The difficult bit is crafting a new politics of change in a time of insecurity; a politics broad enough to appeal to Labour’s alienated heartlands as well as the struggling suburbs.

The old formula of deregulated markets plus public spending just won’t do it. The terms of the debate need to be changed to a relentless focus on declining living standards and the reformed capitalism needed to raise them. This isn’t something that can be achieved in a year or two. It requires patience and perseverance, because the alternative is a slide back into the kind of vapid centrism that will convince no one. Labour needs to hold its nerve, or it is finished.

Ed Miliband is spot on about this, and that’s why, despite the carping of critics, he keeps getting the big judgement calls right.

It was his decision to make fairness and 50p the central dividing line of a highly effective Budget response that triggered the Tory implosion of the last ten days. The Granny tax, ‘cash for Cameron’ and the politics of pasties all took off because Miliband framed it as a debate about the few versus the many. Even the panic over fuel was born of a botched attempt to seize the agenda back from him.

Any other Labour leader would have ignored Osborne’s top rate cut, welcomed it or perhaps urged him to go further in the name of ‘aspiration’. Blairites had been agitating for the 50p rate to be scrapped from the moment it was adopted. Osborne would have walked away from the Budget unscathed, the Granny tax would have been largely ignored, many pasties would have gone uneaten by politicians and our petrol station forecourts would have remained free of panicky motorists.

The Conservative leadership and Desperate Labour got it wrong because they see the politics of the present as a replay of the 1980s. They believe, even after the financial crash and the worst recession on record, that we live in a society based on unquestioning deference to wealth. They assumed that the public would swallow a kiss-up-kick-down Budget in the hope that they too would one day make it into the top tax bracket. Polling evidence to the contrary was dismissed on the grounds that voters couldn’t possibly mean it. Miliband succeeded because he saw past all of this.

This is the second time Miliband has made the right call on a decisive swing issue when his critics have called it wrong. The first was on phone hacking last summer. Many of his colleagues thought he was making a serious mistake when he launched his campaign for a full inquiry into press behaviour. ‘Don’t mess with Murdoch’ sat side by side with ‘don’t support higher taxes on the wealthy’ in New Labour’s Ten Commandments.

Had he listened to their advice, the Leveson inquiry would never have been set up, Rupert Murdoch would have seized control of Sky TV and the whole rotten edifice would have remained intact. Instead we have another two or three years of revelations, court cases and relentless discomfort for David Cameron to look forward to.

Miliband has endured a lot of criticism for his chosen path, much of it anonymous. His contention that the old political rulebook no longer applies has been derided as a recipe for electoral suicide. But if Bradford West shows anything, it shows that he is right.

One by one his judgement calls on the big issues of the day are being vindicated while those of his critics are found hopelessly wanting. On the plight of the squeezed middle, phone hacking, responsible capitalism and now the politics of tax, he has been consistently ahead of the curve.

The road to the next election is going to be a long and bumpy one with many more downs as well as ups. If Labour is going to be resilient enough to last the distance, the grumblers and sceptics will need to start showing more respect for the judgement and ability of their leader. He has earned the right to expect that much from his party.

David Clark is Editor of Shifting Grounds.