The narrowing polls are a worry – but worse, Labour MPs fear there’s a sense of “drift”

31st July, 2013 10:27 am

Today’s ComRes poll for the Independent has the Labour lead over the Tories down to just 3 points, down from 6 points last month. Labour’s vote share has actually increased by a point (from 38% to 39%) but the Tory vote has risen by 4 points, narrowing the gap as UKIP’s stellar polling over the past few months begins to fade.

Of course we should never focus too heavily on a single poll – it’s foolish to extrapolate based on a single data point as I’ve noted recently – but the polling trend is undeniably towards a smaller Labour lead in recent weeks. YouGov might have the lead at 6 points this morning, but that’s down from consistent high single/low double figure leads just a month or two ago. ICM’s poll that showed Labour and the Tories tied still looks like an outlier, but it showed us that the two parties are polling close enough together that such anomalies can be within the margin of error. And of course Ed Miliband’s personal poll ratings are still poor, which becomes an increasing concern when the party no longer has the luxury of a double digit poll lead to fall back on.

Unsurprisingly, Labour MPs have largely returned to their constituencies for the summer with a palpable sense of apprehension.Whereas a few months ago the default setting in the PLP appeared to be a relatively calm sense of confidence, the mood seems to have shifted. Several MPs have spoken to me about a sense of “drift”, and a lack of clarity from the party leadership. And whilst only a handful of MPs I’ve spoken to are opposed to Miliband’s plans to reform the union-link, I’m not sensing any confidence from within the PLP that Miliband a) has a plan to fund the party’s election campaign post-reform or b) that they sense this is a real vote winner.

There’s a fear that we’re turning inwards to talk about ourselves with an election already on the horizon. As the economy picks up and the Tories feel bullish enough to try and attack Labor on our traditional strength (the NHS) some MPs have begun to fear that the party’s broader strategy isn’t working.

I have some sympathy for that.

What Miliband and his team would doubtless argue is that we are in a unique situation – a five year parliament. As the economy is in flux and we don’t know where we’ll be in 2015, the decision has been taken to hold back most of the major policy announcements until the last 12-18 months of the parliament. That means the party must do a certain amount of holding its nerve as the leadership – to be blunt – treads water in policy terms, only revealing tiny policy morsels when it is deemed necessary. The policy will come, we are told. And it will be bold, and radical (think house building, control of energy prices and – perhaps – public rail ownership), but it won’t come yet. Perhaps something along these lines might be introduced in Miliband’s conference speech this year. But maybe not.

Whilst this strategy has merit – and takes no small amount of guts to execute – it’s not without flaws. It’s hard not to feel that the policy process has stalled, or is at least in hibernation, when now is exactly when we should be rolling out the broad brushstroke policy themes that the general election campaign will be based on. Labour Party members have been waiting for three years now for what an Ed Miliband led Britain might look like and how it might be different. We cannot be saying the same after this year’s conference. (To be honest, the party should be taking advantage of the quiet summer season – as Jonathan Freedland rightly notes, the party can’t afford to rest). Labour Party members can’t continue to go naked onto the doorstep, as I first warned 15 months ago.

The polls are concerning – sure, that’s obvious – but more worrying is the sense of drift, the fear that Miliband’s radical, bold manifesto might remain a dusty tome confined to a bookshelf, never to be seen in public. There’s a realistic fear that some in Miliband’s circle want to re-run the 2010 manifesto – and electoral strategy – again, and expect a different result. That’s the very definition of a party that is drifting. And that, without a doubt, would be a recipe for returning David Cameron to Downing Street.

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