Labour are lazily repeating the mistakes of the Tories in 2010
Not without justification, analysis of last week’s local elections has focused on the surge in popularity of UKIP, the renegade party of British politics. Picking up over a quarter of the vote in South Shields and a similar percentage across the country as a whole, the plucky, if slightly eccentric defied even this writers expectations and picked up 139 county council seats.
Many a column in has been subsequently devoted to the effect this will have on David Cameron and the Conservatives, for it is they who are most feeling the Rothmans and real ale tainted breath of Nigel Farage down the back of their necks. The supposed silver bullet of a promised EU referendum failed to stop UKIP in their tracks, and somewhat desperate attempts o belittle UKIP supporters into submission by Ken Clarke seem to have been counter productive.
This should bring no small delight to Team Milliband, watching the Cameroons squirm in the face of the UKIP monster they at least in part created, But Labour are having a torrid time of things too. Despite sluggish growth, a despised Lib Dem party, and UKIP chomping into the Tory base, Labour are failing to capitalise
Some key points to consider: Labour managed to pick up less than 300 seats at the local elections last wee, well short of what a decent oppositionn should be raking in. Labour only control two county councils, neither south of Birmingham. Labour’s majority in ultra safe South Shields was cut. They came a humiliating fourth at Eastleigh. The latest YouGov poll shows most prefer Cameron to Milliband as PM, and that the Labour leader has failed to provide effective opposition. Most tellingly, Labour are still blamed for the state of the economy.
Yet there seems little sense of urgency or worry from Labour. Double digit poll leads and a few easy by election wins have allowed the Labour leadership to insulate themselves from the nastier, more uncomfortable facts. Labour have given into the temptation of believing that the next election is theirs by default, and so don’t really need to do anything. In short, Labour are coasting.
There are more than a few echoes of the Tories in the run up to the last General Election. Back in 2009 it all seemed to be going swimmingly for Cameron. They’d snapped up hundreds of country council seats and were facing a government gripped by back biting and a growing sense of nihilism. Poll leads of 16 percent validated the Tory modernisers and lulled them into a false sense of security. But rather than push ahead with a bold and radical policy agenda, the Tories chose to take their foot off the pedal and coast. The reasoning was fairly sensible on paper; Labour were universally disliked, so the Tories would win a majority simply by virtue of not being Labour. Better therefore, to avoid talk of actual polices because that might put some parts of the electorate off.
The result? Rather than coming across as cautious, the Tories came across as lazy and arrogant. It looked (correctly) like they assumed the election was in the bag, and made no attempt to fight for it. Voters can’t be inspired to get out and vote without a message, a vision. This is the challenge Labour are failing to rise to today. They’re putting an awful lot of stock in simply not being the Tories, as if that alone will give them a majority. A lukewarm ‘One Nation’ mantra does as little to put fire in the bellies of voters as ‘the Big Society’ did for Cameron; outside Westminster, its meaningless marketing babble.
Labour have the added problem of an underwhelming leader and a toxic Shadow Chancellor. Ed Milliband is bright and affable, but looks, sounds and acts like an awkward supply teacher. Ed Balls is tainted with the dying days of the Brown Government and has little to offer the public but more of the same; the bottomless pit of debt financed spending. And like it or not, Labour have lost the debate on austerity, with poll after poll showing public acknowledgement of the need for cuts (something Mr Osborne would do well to heed!). Even yesterday’s response Queen’s Speech saw nothing new from Labour, just more of the same tired soundbites and predictable blunted barbs.
The good news for Labour is that such things are easily remedied. Ed Balls could and should be replaced by Alistair Darling. The former Chancellor is similarly associated with the Brown years, but has more credibility than Balls whose support come almost entirely from the deficit denying Labour Left. Such a move would show voters that Milliband has a ruthless edge, the sort of Prime Ministerial gravitas he lacks. A new face would allow Labour to press ahead with the release of some actual policies, giving potential voters something to get their teeth into other than opposition for oppositions sake.
The alternative could be a rather nasty shock for Labour in 2015.