Get your act together and your ducks in a row

9th December, 2013 8:55 am

As psephological indicators go, the Any Questions audience is not entirely reliable. All through the 1980s audience members would applaud panelists who declared that teachers and nurses clearly deserved to be better paid, and if that meant higher taxes to fund those pay rises, so be it. But the applause of Any Questions audiences would not then be reflected in the votes cast at general elections. In fact, you suspected that some of those who had clapped the left-leaning guests had subsequently gone off and voted Conservative.

So we should not regard the responses of the good citizens of Coleford, Gloucestershire last Friday as indicative of any larger national trend. That said – they were interesting. Two moments in particular were noteworthy. When Tristram Hunt made the (accurate) observation that in May 2010 the incoming coalition government had inherited an economy that was growing, the audience laughed in disbelief. But equally, when the author Jeanette Winterson expressed (genuine) outrage at the existence and growth of food banks, and dismissed Andrew Lansley’s answers with undisguised contempt, she was cheered loudly.

Were the members of this audience left wing or right wing? Were they Labour considerers or lost permanently to the party? It is impossible to say. But their mixed responses may give some hint as to how Labour ought to be positioning itself as the long election campaign begins.

There probably isn’t much point debating 2010 any more. Elections are about the future. Voters pick between different “forward offers”, and choose the one that seems to them to be the most attractive and plausible. This in part explains the difficulty Ed Balls had in getting the House of Commons to listen to him last Thursday. He was almost shouted down in an organised display of parliamentary subversion. But it would have been harder to disrupt a speech that was clearly setting out a broad alternative economic programme. It is time to start talking in greater detail about how and why the economy would be different under Labour. And, incidentally, there is no better candidate to carry out that work as shadow chancellor than Ed Balls.

At the same time, the extent of unhappiness among voters about the unfairnesses and inequalities in Britain today, symbolised by phenomena such as food banks and the bedroom tax, calls for a bolder and more ambitious Labour offer than that which might be expected from some of the New Labour veterans mentioned in a leaked and presumably already out of date memo revealed in an Observer exclusive yesterday.

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With 18 months to go to the election it is obviously time to assign campaign roles and start finalising ideas for the manifesto. It is encouraging for Labour that so many talented figures seem ready to lend a hand. What is so far less clear is what the central thrust and tone of this campaign will be. It will be important not to refight old battles, or unthinkingly recycle old techniques. May 2015 will be different. It will involve a volatile electorate, reduced loyalty to the three old parties, the unknowable UKIP factor, and a media industry in some disarray. No-one has fought a UK election in circumstances quite like these before. Cutting through to sceptical, free-floating voters will require brilliant communication skills. “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”, as St Paul said.

There is no time to waste in personality squabbles and turf wars. There needs to be clarity, from the centre – from the leader’s office – about how the campaign will be run. Labour has a good story to tell about the fairer, more productive and more successful economy it wants to help deliver. It is entitled to argue that the Conservatives are unable and unwilling to govern in everybody’s interests. Remarkably, only three and a half years after a heavy defeat, Labour stands on the brink of office once again.

But it will have to earn the right to govern. And that means getting its act together, now.

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