Political Promise

Reshuffle: Labour Fighting Back

In Andrew Forsey on January 21, 2011 at 7:14 pm

After a 2010 to forget, 2011 has begun promisingly for Labour, writes Andrew Forsey

My last article, Use your Ed, was laced with frustration and anxiety over the general performance of Ed Miliband in his first few months as Labour leader. Appearing to be opportunistic, uncharismatic and lacking intensity, I feared that the Labour party (my apologies, the 9% of union members who voted in the leadership contest) had elected a leader who would make the party unelectable, after a year in which our credibility and electoral appeal had already been dealt a severe hammering, with the Coalition rushing ahead with its programme against a largely ineffective Opposition, whilst blaming all of the ills of today on the past thirteen years, again, with muted response from the Opposition.

Yet Labour’s start to 2011 has been resilient, defiant, and generally encouraging.

As if we didn’t know already, the issue that is likely to dominate this parliament will be the economy. Logic dictates, therefore, that the party perceived to be the most competent economic stewards will be rewarded at the next election. It was the Tories’ attacks on Labour’s supposed economic mismanagement which undoubtedly forced Gordon Brown out of Number 10 in May last year. Miliband’s assured and robust performance on Andrew Marr last Sunday represented a critical manoeuvre by Labour to retain the attention of voters who had hitherto dismissed the party, as he finally offered some resistance to the tiresome Tory myth that has been doing the rounds for the last 8 months, that “The Coalition has no alternative but to (insert the latest spending cut/tax rise) as it was Labour’s profligacy that got us into this mess, which we’re now sorting out in the national interest” (Copyright Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Alexander, et al). As I have said before, it was not Gordon Brown’s spending on public services that pushed the developed world into recession. In fact, Call Me Dave and Gideon Osborne had supported every single penny of Labour’s spending right up until November 2008, when all of a sudden the Tories got desperate and performed the mother of all U-turns in a blatant piece of electioneering by politicising the deficit, which had been accumulated whilst saving the banking system and stimulating the economy, in order to keep unemployment and repossessions relatively low compared to previous recessions. Finally, it seems that Miliband has realised that he needs to stick up for Labour’s record in government, otherwise the party will be written off without a thought at the next election. Perhaps he could steal a trick from the Coalition by claiming that there was ‘no alternative’ to Labour’s sustained record of public investment, as we ‘inherited a mess’ from the Tories in the state of public services that we had to deal with in the ‘national interest’. I am sure that Ed Balls will be relishing his new portfolio as Shadow Chancellor (a job he should have been given last September) as he will undoubtedly be vociferously attacking the Tories’ flawed economic policies whilst drawing up a credible Labour alternative, focusing on jobs and growth, in order to reduce the deficit at a manageable pace.

My other worry at the end of 2010 was about Miliband’s ‘blank page’ style of leadership that he had pursued in his first few months. He could easily be perceived as a lightweight, offering no sense of his values or guiding principles. His vision appeared vague and sketchy. His opposition merely opportunistic. Consequently, the Coalition were given a head start in which they could set the agenda and frame the key arguments on their terms. Yet, having attended the Fabians’ New Year Conference last weekend, I finally gained an insight into the ideological underpinnings of the man, and the means through which he intends to pursue these ends. Whilst taking a covert snipe at the Fabian tradition of state intervention, he spoke passionately about the future that he wants for the party and the country, rooted in a more co-operative tradition, and appeared to have genuinely learnt the lessons from Labour’s time in government in order to formulate his strategy for the next few years. Furthermore, his new media team have obviously been putting in a few extra shifts with Ed over Christmas, as his media appearances in 2011 have already been a world away from those wooden, unnatural, uninspiring performances at the back end of 2010, and they are still gaffe-free, which helps! He is finally showing signs of being a leader who can stand up for Labour’s achievements in government, who can effectively oppose the government when he needs to, and who can offer a genuine alternative for disgruntled voters, with a few sweeteners thrown in to tease any disheartened Lib-Dems over the tribal divide. It must be stressed, nevertheless, that these remain very early days, and whilst this article may appear to be a knee jerk reaction based upon just a couple of weeks’ politics since the Christmas holidays, it has been vital for Labour and Miliband to hit the ground running and show that they had learned their lessons from the tail end of 2010:

Lesson One- Don’t just dump on Labour’s record in government. There’s enough people queuing up to do that already; so the party needs to stand up for its achievements and prove that it has learnt from the mistakes that were made (foreign/defence policy and light touch regulation of the banks), whilst dismantling the pathetic, misleading claims from Coalition ministers about its record. All of this will go some way in earning the right to be listened to in future. Check.

Lesson Two- Tell the public what direction the party is going in, and what the leader stands for, rather than allowing the Con-Dems and the right-wing press to draw all over the ‘blank page’ that Miliband initially represented. Check.

Lesson Three- Provide principled and effective opposition to the way in which Labour’s achievements are being dismantled: the abolition of EMAs; the risks posed by the health reforms being imposed at a time when patient satisfaction with the NHS is at an all-time high; the threats to the future of Sure Start; abolition of the Child Trust Fund and school sports funding, for example. Check.

Polly Toynbee, the goddess of the Left, aptly noted to the Fabians that Labour’s achievements in government are beginning to appear all the more significant now that they are under threat. After a perfectly-pitched and defiant start to the year, for which Labour appears to have been rewarded in the opinion polls and the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, the party now seems well placed, particularly with Balls in charge of the economic brief, to take the fight to the Coalition over Labour’s record in government, its economic credibility, and the substantial threats that are being posed to policies and schemes which make a significant difference to many people’s lives.

Labour ended 2010 in danger of being dismissed as the party of the past, burdened by the perception of thirteen years of ‘profligacy’, ‘waste’, and ‘failure’ in government, and devoid of any trust in its future ability to govern with a wooden, opportunistic leader providing feeble opposition. 2011 appears to have marked the beginning of the fightback. Miliband has come out fighting. The party is offering an alternative to the Coalition’s narratives and policies, and is cleverly managing to tempt disaffected Lib Dems over in the process. Perhaps Miliband’s ‘New Generation’ Labour is now in business. The fightback is on.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: