It’s two years until the general election – doing “ok” isn’t good enough anymore

7th May, 2013 11:35 am

Two years from today, Britain will vote in a general election that could define a generation. If the Tories manage to secure a majority, then they will have recovered from a twenty year decline that at times has looked terminal, plunging Labour into another bout of long term opposition. If Labour secures a majority, Ed Miliband will have achieved the historic feat of returning from opposition in a single term – and Labour will, by 2020, have been in power for 18 out of 23 years. There will be a new de facto party of government in British politics. Of course, there could be another coalition. But that doesn’t bear thinking about…

So with three years gone and two years to go, how are Labour doing in the quest to make Cameron a one-term Prime Minister? Six months ago, I would have said well. Strong by-election results in places like Corby, making the most of Tory mistakes like the top rate tax cut and setting the agenda on Leveson, the stage was set for Labour to kick on and win in 2015.

Right now – after last week’s elections – I’d just say ok. And with only two years left, ok isn’t good enough anymore.

The county council election results weren’t as bad as some of Labour’s opponents (and Ed Miliband’s fiercest critics) would like you to believe. Luke Akehurst’s scorecard shows that Labour in many case exceeded expectations, and the election took place in the bluest of True Blue territory – 80% of those voting last Thursday have a Tory MP. And yet, the results still weren’t great. We lost 291 seats in 2009 and won the same number back in 2013, but that number is distorted by a huge gain of 27 seats in Durham – not somewhere that is going to decide the next election. And whilst Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire councils were won back for Labour (the latter by the narrowest of margins), Staffordshire remains in Tory hands, and the great work being done in Lancashire by Arnie Graf and others brought a huge gain in seats, but not enough to win a county that many considered a top priority.

In short, we did slightly less well than in 2005, on a day where we scraped our way to a third term.

These weren’t bad results. We didn’t go backwards (it’s hard to imagine how that would have been possible) – and in many places we were close. But two years from a General Election – close isn’t good enough anymore.

There are positives to take from last week though, and learning from those areas in which Labour did do well could be the different between success and failure on election day in 2015.The party should be speeding up candidate selection and the hiring of hundreds of organisers that was promised last year – the longer we go in target seats without a candidate or ground organisation, the less chance there is of wresting it from the incumbent. In those areas where we selected candidates earlier, and have organisation in place – like Hastings, Harlow, Lincoln and Stevenage – we performed well, picking up seats in key target areas for 2015.

Elsewhere though, our organisation seems insufficient, unable to out organise either the local hierarchy (the Tories) or the anti-politics mob (UKIP).

But Labour’s failure to achieve the great set of results that Ed Miliband needed to put the past few weeks behind him wasn’t just a question of organisation – it’s also a question of policies and politics.

In Lancashire, I know that a great deal of time was spent writing a manifesto that was informed by and drafted with the involvement of local people. This may well have been the case elsewhere in the country. But with the best will in the world, people don’t vote in County Council elections on the basis of county-wide manifestos – as evidenced by the UKIP surge. I’m pretty sure no-one was putting an x in the UKIP box on the basis of their views on potholes and speed limits.

So what was the offer that people had last Thursday from Labour? What was the compelling national case for a Labour vote in last week’s election. Vote Labour for housing? Vote Labour to deal with the youth unemployment crisis? Vote Labour for Social Care for your loved ones? At present – and this terrifies me – whenever I’m asked why someone should vote Labour, too often the only answers I’m able to give are negative ones. Because the Tories are ruining the economy. Because unemployment is too high. Because inequality is increasing week on week. But if Labour is going to have little success at being the party of protest – and last week showed us that’s the case – then we must instead plough onwards with being the alternative party of government. And that means a positive message for what a Labour government would look like. At the moment things are too abstract I’m afraid.

We need a more concrete offer. What is it?

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