There’s something vaguely reassuring about discovering that extreme combinations of adverse events immediately before elections don’t just happen to Labour governments.
My memory of each April/May in successive years of our period in government was of a tentative Labour recovery in the first quarter being blown out of the water during April by “events”, thus turning retreat in the local elections on the first Thursday in May into rout. Straight afterwards, the PLP would perform its traditional panic and plot manoeuvre and a bad situation would turn into an early summer death spiral: PM does badly in election, PLP plot and panic, polls go down even more, PLP plots and panics even more… etc.
The most spectacular example of this was 2006 when we had the perfect storm hit in mid-campaign. In late April in the space of a couple of days Health Secretary Pat Hewitt was booed by the conference of one of the nursing unions, Deputy PM John Prescott’s fling with his secretary was made public, and most damaging of all Home Secretary Charles Clarke was embroiled in a scandal over the release without deportation of foreign prisoners. The three events were conflated by the media into an overall story about the wheels coming off Blair’s government. Labour went on to lose 319 councillors and control of 17 councils.
Something similar seems to have hit the Tories in the last few days. But the nature of the crises hitting the Tories one after another is of a different order of magnitude, more existential, than the mere bad news that hit Labour in 2006. The Murdoch revelations or allegations about Jeremy Hunt I would put just in the bad news for the Government column. They are about one minister’s poor judgement, and a systemic problem of the relationship between News International and all UK governments, but this is not an issue which by itself would massively affect voting behaviour. But it’s still a huge story which destroys any effort by Cameron to say he represents a new way of doing politics, and combined with two other events creates an impression of a Government in meltdown.
The two other “events” are more fundamental in that they hit voters’ pocketbooks and indicate flawed economic thinking at the heart of everything this Government stands for, at the same time as vindicating Labour’s economic stance, which had hitherto been derided.
First, we have the long, rumbling aftershock from probably the most politically inept Budget of recent memory. This is like Labour’s 2007 alienation of its core vote with the 10p tax rate abolition, but more so, because there are a whole host of deeply alienating measures that Osborne has dreamt up, from the “granny tax” to the attack on charitable giving. Some still haven’t risen up the political agenda to the extent they will in future as they hit people in the pocket, such as the changes to tax credits for the poorest that will drive people out of part-time work and onto the dole, and the changes to child benefit for the best off that cut one of the few ties that bind the upper middle classes to the welfare state, and destroy the principle established in the early 1990s of taxation of individuals rather than couples.
Then there is the mother of all pre-mid-term-election “events” – the country slipping back into the double-dip recession Labour had warned that the Coalition’s extreme approach to deficit reduction would lead to. Not only is this bad news for people who will lose their jobs or have their hours cut, it makes deficit reduction even tougher as it reduces the tax being generated. Everything Labour said before and since the election about deficit reduction being too far and too fast suddenly makes sense to a whole swathe of sceptical voters. Everything Osborne, Cameron, Clegg and Alexander predicated their economic and political strategy on – a fast clearing of the deficit and a return to growth by the next election – suddenly looks unachievable and the product of collective delusional belief in pre-Keynesian flat-earth economics. They trashed our public services and it didn’t make our economic situation better, it made it worse.
It also means Labour can now unite around Ed Balls’ economic strategy – well-meaning and intelligent efforts from within our own ranks to argue for a more fiscally hawkish approach by Labour are redundant in light of a double-dip recession – the Balls approach to the deficit is demonstrably now the one that makes most sense.
In this context the elections on May 3rd have the potential to be a turkey shoot – a cull of Tory and Lib Dem councillors that will do lasting damage to their activist base (people who lose their council seats tend to become less active and hence weaken the General Election machine of the affected parties), cause strife, panic and plotting with and between both Coalition parties, and give Labour the chance to demonstrate it can govern effectively at a local level across wide areas of the country.
But to happen, a turkey shoot needs participants. This turkey shoot has Tory and Lib Dem turkeys, it needs all of us on the Labour side to pick up our political guns and start shooting. That runs from the frontbenchers through the council leaders to the grassroots member toying with delivering leaflets or helping on polling day. We’ll only convert this huge opportunity into reality if everyone gets stuck in.
It promises to be an exciting week between now and polling day.