The problem with glass half full, glass half empty analyses is that its all too easy to sit on the fence agreeing with both. That’s how I felt reading Anthony Painter and Luke Akehurst on Labour’s year. I’m pretty happy with where the party is in terms of policy, organisation and Ed’s vision. But I worry about the politics (after all, I read the numbers like every other political geek) and I think we need to put it all together better. So here’s my thoughts on 2011 and some suggestions for where Labour should go in 2012.
Balls’ strategic judgement that the way to beat the Tories on the economy was a sound one. It may not yield dividends yet but it will as there is only so long any government can go on blaming others before the electorate simply blames those in office.
In substance terms though, Labour is still grappling with the deficit and our response. Re-framing the issue to jobs and growth is key here because as Osborne’s Austerity Britain has proved, you can’t cut your way back to growth. Thus the most important economic policy development of 2011 was not the minutiae of the Five Point Plan but rather the fact that it accepted the idea that borrowing for investing in jobs and growth is a hard nosed economic necessity not a cuddly social democratic nicety. And as earlier this month Fabian General Secretary Andrew Harrop demonstrated with his ‘Labour tax cuts’ call, Labour needs to add drama to its economic message to achieve the much fabled ‘cut-through’ that means our position resonates with the electorate.
But, to be blunt, the tension between getting to growth, tackling unemployment, getting the electorate on side and regaining economic credibility is very, very far from being resolved within the party at any level. The biggest challenge of substance Labour has next year is balancing these competing claims in a way that will prove popular, effective and credible. Good luck. Even the impressive ‘In the Black Labour’ chose to dwell more on what spending should be like after growth has returned then on how to get out of this mess. Next month’s Fabian new year conference with a keynote by Ed Balls should focus on how this gordian knot can be cut.
After my defeats with the Democrats in 2000, 2002 and 2004 I came to fear that electorates plump for the party offering less policy detail, not more. So it makes sense for Labour to take its policy review slowly and for Ed to choose carefully. But there are already good markers of strong content to come: Sadiq Khan is right to re-frame criminal justice reform in terms of reducing re-offending; Stephen Twigg sensibly parked the free schools issue (come 2015 a Labour government will indeed have more pressing matters then closing schools); Maria Eagle at Transport is deftly tackling big issues like carbon emissions and reintegrating the train systems. 2012 should see these ideas developed into formal policy that would make the basis of a strong, progressive, reforming government. But we also need more attack-based policy that exploits squeezed middle worries on household incomes and costs to better connect with the electorate and stick the policy knife into the coalition.
Here Luke Akehurst is 100% right: “we have a General Secretary making the most radical changes in living memory at Party HQ.” In 2012 Labour will finally have a ‘does what it says on the tin’ organisational set up with comms, rebuttal and policy, field ops, commercial, governance and services and (huzzah!) a proper membership and supporters department. In a further break with the command-and-control stitch ups of the past the heads of these offices are actually advertised for open competition. But this isn’t just about process, the party is re-organising in as radical a fashion as that of the Democrats after the Kerry defeat. That will ultimately put more seats into play then would otherwise have been possible. The challenge for 2012 is to take this top level change and embed it throughout the party, from regional staff to on the ground activists. Only then will the expanded playing field be turned into expanded election wins.
2011 saw Labour win predictable elections. Oppositions should win Opposition by-elections after all and incumbent governments should lose council seats. But Labour lost Scotland this year to an SNP landslide and unless the party focuses as much in 2012 on Scotland as on London then we risk losing any hope for a majority government in Westminster as well. After all, if Scottish voters get used to voting for the SNP at Hollyrood and Labour ends up opposing 2 out of 3 options on the referendum ballot paper (both independance and an expansion of devolution) then Alex Salmond will be laughing all the way to SNP major gains in Westminster seats. Labour needs to address this existential threat in 2012 by supporting ‘Devo-Max’ and bringing as much reform to the Scottish Labour Party as Ed Miliband and Iain McNicol have brought to UK Labour.
2011 saw Ed Miliband rightly praised for his intervention on phone hacking, his shadow cabinet reshuffle and a series of intellectually impressive and politically savvy speeches on responsibility, the squeezed middle and breaking up concentrations of power. But some of his low individual leadership numbers need to be boosted throughout 2012. To achieve this he should continue to eschew quick fixes, gimmicks and triangulation and instead begin connecting the big themes of his leadership as he outlines what, as Peter Mandelson has said, his “project” actually is. These themes then need to be translated into far more aggressive attacks on a no-growth government, price gouging energy companies and, yes, even the 1% who seek short term profits for themselves over society’s gain as a whole. Such attacks will both resonate with swing voters and boost his own ratings. After a year of multi-coloured Labour debates Ed can now move from being the Party’s Intellectual-in-Chief to it’s Campaigner-in-Chief, offering a coherent and optimistic vision of the Britain he will build, whilst excoriating not just his political opponents but the pro-Tory vested interests from banks to energy companies who prey on middle England.