In the immediate aftermath of the budget, the Labour Party had a sizeable wobble. Poll leads that had been unspectacular but relatively consistent because to shrink rapidly. The standard poll lead fell from 4, 5 and 6 points to just a point or two.
The polling slump – combined with Miliband’s lacklustre budget response and newspaper reports of internal discontent – led to a period of soul searching in the party, and ramped up debates that were already ongoing. Is this offer big enough? Are our priorities right for Britain? How flimsy is our poll lead? And what does winning in 2015 look like?
Truth be told, that’s the kind of debate that has been going on in the party for months, much of it taking place on these pages. But this was different. Now it was rattling around the newsrooms of national newspapers and piquing the interest of a lobby that too often finds the Labour Party too dull to bother with.
And as a result, the party – from constituency office to leader’s office – began to wonder if things were far more fragile than had been assumed.
The prospect of the Tories taking a poll lead for the first time in years seemed weeks, perhaps days, from reality. A flurry of heavily briefed but less than definitive pieces on Labour policy – especially on tuition fees and rail – began to appear. It seemed that complacency was being cast aside and a clear offer was beginning to emerge.
But the bandwagon moves on, it always does. Maria Miller’s graceless apology had the press sniffing blood. Clegg vs Farage sucked up much of last week’s political oxygen. The polls have begun to return to their pre-budget average. Blood pressures and returning to normal and the press seem bored with the Labour Party again.
Yet it’d be foolish for Labour’s complacency to return too. Just because the Tories didn’t dash into a poll lead doesn’t mean that can’t happen. Both members and members of Parliament have had a glimpse of what the election campaign might look like if the party lacks a clear and compelling offer, if senior figures are at loggerheads and the public imagination is captured by a clever budget wheeze from George Osborne (I’d not bet against a basic rate tax cut, for what it’s worth).
If Labour is united in purpose behind a big story about national renewal and a vision for Britain that’s bigger than austerity, we can win. But if we tiptoe towards the line, we lose.
I wish that wasn’t true. I’m a pretty cautious character, and I’d love to think we could cash our chips in now and tread carefully to a pre-ordained victory. But the past two weeks have shown us that strategy isn’t just intellectually dishonest, it’s not even on the table.
So complacency must be kicked aside, at all levels of the party. With just weeks until a national election that we could well lose (the Euros) and a year until an election that we must win, there’s a need to kick on, accept the position we’re in and do something about it.
Ed Miliband himself has faced criticism himself for a perceived complacency in the past. He’s the leader and them’s the breaks. But it’s a misunderstanding to suggest that such a mood emanates from the leader. Whilst Miliband retains an often surprising confidence that Labour will win next year, some seek to point out that a popular vote tie could hand Labour victory. Whilst many in the leadership think we’ll probably scrape home, he acts as if he knows Labour will win.
That, friends, is the dividing line between confidence and complacency.
So let’s think big, and let’s hope that Miliband’s confidence prevails over the forces of complacency. Let’s hope that when he gives a major speech tomorrow it’s not just a repeat or a reheat of statements we’ve heard before about the cost of living and the squeezed middle. Because to justify Miliband’s self confidence, and to banish complacency, Miliband must take a risk on a vision that’s bigger than that.