I was at the Progress Annual Conference at the TUC on Saturday for Ed Miliband’s speech.
I thought it was a useful corrective after a morning session where pollster Deborah Mattinson had presented such a gloomy prognosis of the party’s electoral chances that I turned to fellow blogger Hopi Sen who was sat next to me and asked if I had accidentally walked into to a manic depressives’ convention.
We could all do with reminding ourselves that we just gained 800 plus councillors and 26 councils, almost all of our targets.
I genuinely cannot imagine an alternative history scenario where Labour could be doing better at this stage in the electoral cycle, just one year after our second worst general election defeat since 1918. The Lib Dems are down on just 10%. They could not go any lower. The Tories are on the 36% they got in the general election because the people who voted for them are getting what they voted for just a year ago. Where would the votes come from for us to have any stronger position after just twelve months?
There is also cause for hope in terms of the tactical errors the government are making, such as their pursuit of an ill-thought-through NHS reform – thereby surrendering any effort to triangulate us on their historically weakest policy area – and their weakness on crime and defence (thanks to the SDSR cuts) which historically have been strong suits for the Tories.
Who would have thought that just a year in to the coalition, Laws would be gone with very little hope of an early comeback, and every one of Clarke, Huhne, Cable, Fox, Spelman and Lansley is damaged and potential reshuffle fodder?
We are also in a very different place to the defeated Labour Party that left office in 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979. In each of these cases defeat led to bitter internecine warfare and a dramatic lurch to the left, away from where voters were headed, as party members sought to scapegoat the parliamentary leadership for defeat. No such scenario has unfolded this time. A seemingly inevitable cycle of Labour history has been broken. The party is extremely united, forward-looking and comradely compared even to the atmosphere of the years of Blair-Brown infighting, let alone the open warfare of the last time we were in opposition.
The choice of Progress’ event to deliver such a major speech was in itself significant as Progress had backed David Miliband for leader, and whilst there were Ed partisans like me in the audience there were also many people whose starting position when Ed was elected was, to put it politely, sceptical.
I think Ed’s speech scored a hit with that audience, who are struggling to square the circle between their understandable disappointment at David’s defeat and their hardwired programming to be the loyalist praetorian guard for any leader – even one they did not vote for.
More importantly, its message got good coverage in the kind of media that swing voters consume, the Daily Mail reporting that he “made a direct pitch to middle class voters in the South of England whose living standards were, he said, being ‘squeezed’ in the same way as those in less affluent parts of the country” and highlighting that he “condemned the last Labour administration for being ‘too relaxed’ on immigration.”
Ed knows more than anyone else that it is going to be an epic task getting us from 29% in 2010 to a general election victory in 2015. In doing so we would be telescoping history: the election victories of 1945, 1964 and 1997 that he talked about in his speech took 14, 13 and 18 years to reach.
But I think he has now set out a route map of how to get there, with themes of community, the squeeze on living standards and the British promise for future generations that are rooted in our values and that the party can unite around, but will resonate with a wide range of swing voters as well as our core vote.
Strategically I think he is spot on to stick to “too far, too fast” on the cuts and to “avoid the old Labour disease of setting out a false choice…That we need only ex-Lib Dems or only ex-Conservatives. We need both.”
This is a critical twelve months for Labour. We have to get the policy review right. We have to use the “Refounding Labour” review to make our structures fighting fit. We have to campaign like crazy to win the Scottish and Welsh local elections, to gain another tranche of English councils particularly more of the big metropolitan ones, and to pull off the immense challenge of ousting Boris Johnson and getting Ken Livingstone elected as Mayor of London. The latter is a challenge that those of us who are ideologically not natural members of Ken’s fan club have a particular moral responsibility to lead if we are to demonstrate our respect for the democratic choice of candidate London Labour members overwhelmingly made.
Ed has a huge weight on his shoulders. We as activists have all got a responsibility to take on some of that weight and play a role not as nit-pickers and armchair critics, fantasising about an imaginary easy stroll to victory, but as Labour footsoldiers on a long, hard slog to 2015.