Last night I was fortunate enough to speak at Hampstead and Kilburn CLP on Refounding Labour, but it wasn’t long until the discussion rapidly descended into the usual policy-based acrimony.
High on the list of concerns was the argument that Labour isn’t leading the fight to save the NHS. No matter than John Healey had given a (excellent) speech earlier in the day. Nevermind that Healey has been leading the fight against the changes inside and outside of the commons for over six months. The received wisdom – even in a CLP meeting – is that the charge against the reforms has been led by Nick Clegg. That’s despite Clegg TWICE voting for the reforms before his recent change of heart.
That’s because John Healey is suffering from Labour’s biggest problem at the moment – the crisis of invisibility.
Healey (a smart and well-liked shadow minister) is far from the only senior Labour figure to suffer in this way. Opposition involves – by necessity – giving many speeches, interviews and statements that at best will provide mood music, and at worst will be outright ignored. It’s tough for any party to adjust. 18 months ago a minor statement from a little known cabinet minister would have made the news. Now Ed Miliband must practically paint himself red (or should that be blue) and jump up and down to attract any sort of attention at all from the media (although hopefully not today – he’s getting married after all).
If Ed has that much difficulty getting noticed, what hope for the rest of the party? Experienced and talented ministers like Douglas Alexander, Yvette Cooper and Sadiq Khan (all in plum roles) are much less of a presence than might have been expected. When it comes to the media it can often seem like you stand no chance of getting seen at all unless your name includes either “Ed” or “Miliband”.Even then it’s a struggle
So why is this such a problem? Surely all oppositions face this kind of reaction? Of course this is true. But in the brave new world of coalition politics, external opposition is dull. Everyone expects Labour to oppose what the government does. That’s natural. That’s barely news. But internal opposition is fascinating. For the media (and especially for all those would be Kremlinologists) the inner workings of the coalition are fascinating. The leader of the opposition will always oppose – that’s what he does. But when the Deputy Prime Minister opposes (even if it’s as part of a typically hypocritical volte face) it’s news. That’s the new political reality. Yet our activists stress and gripe about why our senior politicians aren’t clogging up the airwaves.
They aren’t there because the media don’t care. And they won’t care (not really) for at least another year. And that’s just something we need to get used to, before we can even consider how to change it. Being in opposition means long periods of being invisible and feeling impotent. After thirteen years in power we need to get used to that again – and take advantage of the fact that no-one is watching to properly appraise how we got here in the first place.