Until last week I thought the Labour campaign
was going quite well. They neutralised their vulnerability on the economy and tax. Their campaign on the NHS was dishonest but largely unchallenged. Their portrayal of the election as a choice of values had some resonance. And then it went wrong. Ed Miliband, their leader, has shown a disastrous lack of judgement - he is setting himself up for an impossible task after election day. And that could be disastrous for the left in Britain.
The clearest symbol of this came on Sunday, when Mr Miliband unveiled his six key manifesto "pledges" carved into an 8 foot (2.4m) high tablet of stone. He said that he will erect this in the Rose Garden of 10 Downing Street if he becomes Prime Minister. The stunt invited ridicule, and ridicule came in floods - tombstones and millstones were only the most obvious images to conjure up. To a serious-minded observer though, it wasn't just the general daftness that was troubling. Look at the six "pledges". They are not pledges at all, but vague aspirations, quite beyond the power of a government to fulfil in a single term of office. Mr Miliband is leading his party into the very slough of public disillusion that he claims to be avoiding. Let's consider the key statements:
- A strong economic foundation. That means getting to grips with Britain's low productivity and producing steady economic growth, not based on a current account deficit or (much the same thing) increased public or private borrowing. But this means addressing the deep-seated economic problems, which have emerged over the last 10-20 years, and which nobody really knows how to fix. Quite apart from the threat of the world economy blowing the whole thing off course.
- Higher living standards for working families. Ditto, with the added dimension that incomes for lower and middle tier workers must be raised. This will take more than tinkering with the minimum wage.
- An NHS with the time to care. Oh dear! The NHS faces a severe crisis of resources as the burden on it grows. No government can hope to do much more than run hard to stand still.
- Controls on immigration. Just what on earth do they mean? Labour have made a point of not challenging the country's status in the EU (a stance with which I agree) - which means that direct controls on much immigration will be impossible. In fact all they have talked about is curbing the rather fictitious problem of benefit tourism, and chasing after exploitative labour brokers. If the economy does well, there will be more immigration; if it doesn't Labour will be in trouble on its other "pledges".
- A country where the next generation can do better than the last. This may not be so difficult to keep, with a bit of judicious definition - it is probably true already. But if the economy disappoints, as seems certain in view of the headwinds, then nobody will believe that it has been kept.
- Homes to buy and action on rents. This is perhaps the most like a true pledge. Whether a Labour government's action would be enough to have a discernible effect on the housing market would be another matter. We are still likely to be in a housing crisis in five years time.
So as time passes, any Labour government's progress against these aspirations is bound to look disappointing. So what would Mr Miliband say? Look at the small print, probably. Each "pledge" is backed up by a more detailed and achievable to-do list in the main manifesto. But this detail isn't on the tablet, and this excuse will look like classic political evasion. Or he could say that failure was due to circumstances beyond his control (which would most likely be true). And yet Mr Miliband has repeatedly claimed that he will under promise and over deliver. Something really doesn't add up here.
There is something else, though, about what Mr Miliband has been saying over the last week, starting with his Question Time performance last Thursday. He has said that if he does not win a majority, he will not deal with other parties. Specifically he was pressed on the SNP - but my understanding of what he said is that he excluded any other party. He wants to put up a Queen's Speech and a Budget, and dare the other parties to vote it down. Given that he may well be given the opportunity to form a government even if he has less seats than the Conservatives, this does not sound at all wise. Even if he gets away with his Queen's Speech and first Budget, he still has to manage the routine business if government - and the House of Lords will not respect his manifesto commitments without a majority. In some shape or form he is bound to end up doing deals - and the other parties will have no incentive to make it easy for him. This will lead to yet more fudge and evasion. It also looks like closing down too many options, too early.
Behind all this lies a deeper problem. Mr Miliband is deep inside the tribal Labour bubble - which does not acknowledge that political movements outside the Labour Party have any real claim in the political realm. Other parties (or people outside parties) are either class enemies and beyond the pale, or they are fatuous fringes. This outlook leads to a certain sort of political blindness. He doesn't understand that it is perfectly democratic to compromise on his manifesto if he hasn't actually won an electoral mandate for it. Neither can he see that the sort of soft, aspirational phrases that appear on the tablet just look like political hogwash to most people.
I am reminded of Labour's campaign in the Wandsworth Council elections of 1990. The party was close to taking power at a time when the Conservatives were not doing well nationally. They fought a glossy campaign with an appeal to values. Their final pitch to voters said: "The Wandsworth Conservatives know the price of everything and the value of nothing." To Labour activists this no doubt felt like devastating critique of their opponents that would ring true with electors. The Tories won by a landslide, from which Labour never recovered. Labour's near religious conviction in their moral superiority cuts little ice with the voters - or the ones they need to persuade.
Labour are failing to get through to uncommitted voters, and they are painting themselves into a corner when it comes to what happens after the election. This at a time when they have a historic opportunity. With a little imagination a Labour leader could create an anti-Tory coalition that could place that party in dire trouble. Instead they are inviting disaster. Public confidence in the party has already collapsed in Scotland; that sort of thing can happen elsewhere if they continue to act is if they are the only show in town.
Most voters do not want a Conservative government. But Labour is ineptly led, and courting a collapse (after this election) that could let the Tories in for a generation. Voters on the left should spread their bets a bit. The Lib Dems are far from a perfect receptacle for left leaning voters - another coalition with the Conservatives is a clear possibility. But an unmoderated Tory government would be much worse. And if the other alternative is the sort of Labour calamity government that seems to beckon - I would argue that this would be worse for the left than even another Tory-led coalition.