Labour must enter the discomfort zone
Labour are enjoying their best month since the general election defeat in 2010. Columnists and pundits from across the political divide are now openly discussing the likelihood of a Labour majority in 2015. Even Miliband’s strongest critics have been forced to recognise his position has strengthened. Recent opinion polls have shown a double digit lead for Labour, which places within the party’ grasp – for the first time since 2010 – the prospect of returning to government.
Conservatives have been quick to point out the fortuitous set of circumstances that have, reputedly, ‘gifted’ Ed Miliband his handsome lead. First, the Coalition’s disastrous budget – which has gone wrong in ways the government could never have imagined – has done much to undermine confidence in its economic and social programme. Second, with the formation of a coalition Labour was handed – overnight – a sizable chunk of Liberal Democrat support. It is this set of circumstances, so the argument goes, that now makes it so difficult for the Conservatives to win a majority in 2015.
Yet in important ways, this argument underestimates the success Ed Miliband has had in stabilising the Labour base since 2010. Conservatives are keen to point out that Labour should have had ‘mammoth’ poll leads for some time, but it is unclear why. A vast majority of people accept the need for deficit reduction and cuts, whilst Labour’s status and popularity coming out of the general election was as low as it is possible to remember. Rather, for nearly two years Ed Miliband has done a stable job in providing the electoral foundations for Labour to win in 2015. Now is the time, with a burgeoning lead in the polls, to consolidate this lead. But how?
Thinking back to 2007, the Conservatives consolidated their poll lead with a ‘big bang’ policy announcement on inheritance tax. The fact that the policy would neither serve to benefit many people, nor actually ever come to fruition, was irrelevant: the announcement caught the public eye, was widely popular and confirmed a fragile Tory lead in the polls.
This kind of announcement – in which a policy proposal captures the public imagination and makes inroads into new electoral ground – is exactly what Labour now needs to shore up the significant lead it now has. Yet this will not be easy. Ed Miliband has thus far had little success with ‘major’ policy announcements. There have been big proposals, for example, on university fees and job guarantees, but both have failed to gain significant public traction.
To gain this traction, Labour must now move in two ways with its policy approach. First, and as the Conservative inheritance tax example shows, to make a ‘big bang’ you need to capture the heart as well as the head. This involves looking at what people feel passionately and emotionally about, rather than fiddling around with the more mechanical elements of economic and social policy.
Second, and perhaps explaining why policy announcements on education and jobs have failed to excite the electorate, Labour needs to move out of its political comfort zone. It needs to examine the policy areas where people have lost trust in Labour. In general terms, people tend to trust Labour on education, jobs and health. They are far less trustful, however, in other areas, and in particular on welfare and immigration. Incidentally, such policy areas are also the ones that rouse the public’s emotion.
Concentrating on policy areas like welfare and immigration will enable Labour to kill two birds with one stone: crucially, they are not just policy areas that many people feel passionately about, but areas that people don’t trust Labour in. Revisiting Labour’s approach to welfare and immigration does categorically not mean shifting rightwards. Rather, it means actually engaging with people’s concerns and anxieties, as opposed to looking over them: an unfortunate tendency of many on the Left with issues they feel uncomfortable with.
April has been an important month for Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour party. To make the next couple of months truly significant however will require consolidating these recent gains: achieving this requires Labour to move into challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable, terrain.
Dan Sage is a postgraduate research student at the University of Stirling. He tweets from @djsage86.