The Labour Party appears astoundingly becalmed at the moment. A reasonable poll lead serves to reduce dissent. A period of policy vacuum before the manifesto process clicks in to gear means shadow ministers are, on the whole, concerned with influencing policy rather than plotting. The party membership are focused on local and European elections.
And yet the lack of jitters is all the more remarkable when you consider that the next six months could be critical for the Labour Party – not just for this election cycle, but for decades to come.
We are two months from danger and six months from potential disaster, and yet we appear to be blissfully puttering onwards without much in the way of concern.
Let’s take them one by one, starting with the danger that the party faces in May.
In two months (65 days to be precise), the Labour Party will contest local and European elections. And a recent poll suggests that the European elections could be won by UKIP. Already the behind the scenes briefing has begun, suggesting that the local elections are a better pointer to a future general election result and noting that this year’s Euro elections are the “perfect storm” for UKIP. Some have begun to take solace from the fact that the Tories will come an embarrassing third, whilst some senior figures in the party seem to have written off the Euros altogether as a near lost cause. Members are beginning to ask why there appears relatively little campaigning going on around the European elections, and certainly there’s precious little buzz.
Considering only one Euro poll has suggested anything other than a Labour win, that seems a little odd.
Yet if some consider Labour coming second in the Euro elections anything other than a disaster for the party then they’re wrong. Winning the European elections is a hurdle that oppositions are expected to cross if they’re to have a credible chance of winning the next election. In fact, even oppositions that have no chance of winning the next election (think Hague’s Tories in 1999) still win European elections.
No amount of talking up the local elections will cover up Labour’s embarrassment if we don’t win the European elections in May. It’s a national election, and anything other than a win will suggest Miliband’s chances of winning in 2015 are in real jeopardy. And that’s before Miliband has to explain how the electorate care more about the cost of living than Europe, but still handed Euro victory to UKIP.
It’s an unpleasant scenario that would set the tone for a summer of strife. But it’s nothing compared to what Labour could face six months today.
Whilst the threat of losing to UKIP in May is a real one, the impact would be (relatively) short-term. the impact of losing the Scottish Independence Referendum – which takes place in precisely six months – would be disastrous. Most profoundly, the nation that most of us within the Labour Party identify with – Britain – would cease to exist. But it’s also a political truism to say that with the majority of Scottish MPs being Labour, the impact of Scotland leaving the union would be to make it far more difficult for Labour in what’s left of the UK to form a government.
Currently, the polls look good. The SNP campaign is faltering under the weight of its own unanswered questions about Europe, currency, banking, jobs, oil and tax (to name just a handful of the issues on which greatly clarity is required), but there can be absolutely no cause for complacency. A poor result for Labour on May 22nd would make the chances of a UK Labour government in 2015 seem more remote, which would be fertile ground indeed for separatist sentiments to spread.
A divided union, still a real possibility, would be an existential crisis for the Labour Party as well as for Britain as a whole. And yet as Scottish Labour conference approaches this weekend, the debate raging north of the border registers barely a flicker on the movement’s collective richter scale elsewhere. We should be deeply anxious, but the party remains comfortably sanguine.
Two months from danger. Six months from disaster. Yet the Labour Party is becalmed. Wake up – there are icebergs ahead…