Where Labour should go in 2012

28th December, 2011 2:00 pm

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.

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  • Dan McCurry

    ECONOMY: I’ve got no problems with Balls’ economic policy, regardless of the fact that it’s not selling. His policy is the right one, it’s just a shame we can’t get that across right now. 
    He should stick to his guns, which he will do anyway; he is the most consistent politician we have. 

    POLICY: Are you making up excuses for a black hole, Marcus? The 6 month policy review turned into a 3 year policy review. Are you now arguing we should have no policy or no details? I’d love to see what the Fabian Society is going to do about this. More navel gazing suggestions maybe?

    ORGANISATION: I think Iain is a good bloke, so I’m sure he knows what he’s doing. But if the party wants some advise from a former TV news man, it’s this: NEVER EVER put amplified mics on our people at a press conference. The TV cameras have high quality mics. Why make them record the BOOMING sound of loud speakers when recording in a small room? Let the mic record the person, not the sound system. Pure incompetence from a techo point of view. And potentially making the footage unbroadcastable. 

    ELECTIONS: Whatever. 

    LEADERSHIP: The problem for Ed is that he hit the ground standing still. In that early period, he seemed to think that non-confrontation was a effective form of opposition. It wasn’t and it damaged us.

    He’s much better now, but whether that early mistake can ever be overcome is what 2012 will reveal. It may well be that he just can’t. It may be that the voters have made up their minds. If that’s the case then for the good of the party he can’t drag us down.

    Add into the mix the fact that Cameron has found his feet since then and has dropped the barking mad policies such as Big Society and Localism. We are in real trouble!

  • derek

    We don’t need to move the goal posts, we’re spot on with the economic agenda, way back in June 2010 Cameron said he had saved us from a Greek like situation and mended the economy, well by December 2010 the economy had contracted by o.5%.

    • Anonymous

      ” well by December 2010 the economy had contracted by o.5%.”

      Wrong. The economy contracted  -05% in Q4.. after growing 06% in Q3  and then started growing again…+0.5% in Q1 2011.

      And Greece’s economy contracted 4.5% in 2010.. and is forecast to contract -3% in 2011..

      • derek

        madasafish, piffle! stop being so retarded? Cameron clearly made that statement and Osborne clearly blamed the wrong type of snow for the downturn. Look, the recession wasn’t unique to Britain, it happened across the world and the tories have clearly made a bad situation worse, for godsake wake up! the private sector didn’t take up the slack from the public sector and we’re heading for 3 million unemployed, while Cameron continues to cause friction with Europe, honestly are you seriously saying that Cameron and Osborne are doing a good job?

  • The organizational changes (although I must admit I’m not particularly versed on what they are, I’m aware of what they are replacing) are a positive development., but Labour faces two challenges with organizational change. The first is keeping the support of temperamental local activists whose activism is so vital to the party locally. The second is to capitalize on the changes to better get, and keep active, young and student members. I was a student (and sometime Labour Students activist) during the Gordon Brown/economic collapse years, when students were of a generation which saw Labour as the establishment, responsible for their £3k tuition fees and presiding over an economy which was making it hard for them to get jobs. Thus, it was understandably pretty difficult to get left-leaning students interested in Labour activism. Today, this situation is reversed with £9k tuition fees etc and students, properly harnessed, are an incomparable resource for political parties – young, energetic, and with loads of free time (if only our elections didn’t coincide with exam season!).

  • James

    i am happy to say my politics lean to the right, that said if we should have all learned one thing since 97 its that for our democracy to work best all governments require good and honest opposition so i offer this advice in this season of goodwill.
    1) Ditch Balls, whilst you may not agree he is seen as the co-architect of our debt crisis and has indeed apologised for it in the house, as long as he is shadow chancellor labours stance on the economy will hold no water.
    2) Ditch Milliband, labour only started looking credible during the conservative years when they elected John Smith and Ed is no John Smith but beware a smooth salesman like Blair.
    3) Accept that the beloved hard left socialism of many in Labour died a death with the 82 election and the longest suicide note in political history, the country has moved on.
    4) Policy, have some. It is not enough to simply oppose the government, critique and offer sensible alternatives and though it may be unpalatable at times support the government when it offers something good, nation before party.
    5) Stop treating the electorate as fools. Not every public sector worker is a frontline worker be it nurse, doctor, teacher etc and we know it and we know it costs less to pay a paper pusher the dole than 25k a year in a non job. Yes its hard for that person, those people but the public sector is not self financing as those on the public purse are tax consumers not creators.
    6) If you wish to continue with Keynesian economics (which i do not favour, they do not work and that is a point of mathematics not politics but that is a different debate) do so in full. No more spend spend spend and the hubris of “i have abolished boom and bust” when things get better as they will (no boom is everlasting nor is any bust) save against the future unknown even  if that means saying no to a nice shiny new hospital in a labour mp’s patch.
    7) campaign for an unbiased BBC. though the right think its left leaning and some on the left think the opposite it has a duty and legal duty at that to be unbiased. Not a bit of left a bit of right that is balanced, barely, but the national broadcaster needs to be unbiased so stop listening to the spin doctors and actively advocate a neutral news source that can be trusted as such ( i happily offer that same advice to the Tories) this would do much for labours reputation.
    8) Have a firm stance on the EU be it pro or anti or status quo, no one knows where you stand.
    9) Embrace electoral reform few outside your party core see the idea of equal sized constituencies and the need to registrar as an active participant in our democracy as anything other than sensible and the wailing against it from labour benches looks and smells like nothing more than defending your own interests.

    and finally
    10) put the unions in their place. Yes we know labour was founded in part by the union movement but the tail is wagging the dog.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately Ed Balls can not get the message across about Labour’s economic policy, not because the economic policy is wrong but because it is Ed Balls delivering the message.

    When is the Labour Party going to learn that Ed Balls isn’t popular in his own constituency, he isn’t popular with the registered voters and he is doing more harm than good to the Labour Party right now whilst allowing Ed Milliband to take the flack.

  • AmberStar

    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’
     There are not going to be 3 options on the ballot paper unless the current Tory/Dem Coalition put Devo-Max in there.

     As far as I’m aware, the decision has already been made: There will be 2 options on the ballot paper: In or Out. Labour are for In & SNP for Out.

     Labour would be well advised to put their efforts into creating a manifesto for Britain which would make Scots want to be part of it.

    • GuyM

      “Labour would be well advised to put their efforts into creating a manifesto for Britain which wold make the Scots want to be part of it”….

      You mean like promising them even more English and London taxes?

      I love the SNP, good luck to them and I hope they get independence asap.

      • Anonymous

        Agree with Guy.

        I am an exiled Scot and going back reminds me of the 1970s.   A manifesto which would appeal to the Scots is raising benefits, cutting taxes on alcohol and nationalising everything in sight  – all paid for by the taxes of anyone but the Scots… many of whom don’t work and have a lower life expectancy due to poor diet.

        • Franwhi

          Thank god you’re an exile and hope you stay that way. It’s easy to do stereotypes but you conveniently forget the revenue contributions from North sea oil and gas reserves all going  from Scotland to the Exchequer in London as it has been for decades. There is nothing wrong with wanting a fairer more equal society and the power to run your own country. If Scots are as  dysfunctional, needy and dependendant as you depict them then why would they want independence in the first place when all their needs can be met by living off their Southern neighbours ? Your post is not only offensive but illogical.

  • Anonymous

    Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is irrelevant when the water it holds is polluted…

  • Anonymous

    Balls’ economic policy?

    Does not exist.

    Says ? Darling…


    • Anonymous

      Alistair Darling remains the most sensible of  Labour politicians.   If he were Shadow Chancellor Labour would have some credibility.  Balls is a walking reminder of Gordon Brown.

  • Ianrobo

    “POLICY: Are you making up excuses for a black hole, Marcus? The 6 month policy review turned into a 3 year policy review.”

    The election is certain to be in 2015, so in fact what I want is by the end of this year to have some policies and sound base in plan then for 2 and half years of campaigning for them.

    Fixed parliament will prove to be our bounus in this way.

  • An Ed Miliband “phone hacking intervention” is a complete fallacy. He was the man calling for Vince Cable to stand down because of critical words against Murdoch. Miliband jumps on whatever bandwagons he can to assert his position. He can play the politics game quite well, but he needs more human substance to succeed as a leader of the party many people expect to be doing a LOT better than they are right now. But yeah, the phone hacking rubbish.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm, so no winning ideas then.

  • Anonymous

    Here are the challenges which really face us:
    First of all, the EU is not in any sense democratic and it is falling behind the rest of the world in every sense. Why? The national ministers and civil service are largely governed by Brussels. Do we agree?Secondly, the English are heavily in debt and every year the deficit mounts fast. The current government is spending. It is not cutting.Thirdly, Islam is on the move. Iran is rapidly becoming nuclear. The Arab Spring is already persecuting Christians and bringing in a very conservative Islam in many countries. Even in the UK, Islam is stirring. How do we react?Fourthly, many people are out of work, many are in debt and there are far too many people receiving hand-outs from the government, many of them quite fraudulent.Fifthly, what about the rapid influx of people not from an English background? We are already getting used to murder in our cities. Gang culture is normal. Guns and violence are on the rampage.The huge question is this – and it isn’t a party political one at all. How much do we expect the government to do and how much do we leave it to ordinary people to sort out by themselves, freed up from restraint?I do not see these questions really addressed in this article.

  • Ideally Labour should start by acknowledging it’s shocker; the abolition of the 10% tax band Brown announced in his 2007 budget. This hit over three million working poor and pensioners, the very sort of people who look to a Labour government for a helping hand.

    Insult was added to injury when, in almost the next breath he announced a 2P cut in the basic rate for the better off. The upshot of these astonishing measures was; with the honourable exception of Frank Field, silence from both the front and back benches .

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