Not long ago Labour supporters seemed very confident. Their lead in the polls pointed to a comfortable majority; the electoral system was loaded against the Conservatives; they (in their own minds) had won the argument on austerity. It was a good moment to move to the political left and drop the Blairite obsession with the political centre. But now Labour’s poll ratings are sinking, and the Tories catching up. The 2015 election increasingly looks like a stalemate or worse for Labour. What can they do?
And it is not difficult to see the source of Labour’s problems: Britain’s reviving economy, and rapidly falling unemployment. This is not running to the Labour script – which was that austerity policies doomed the British economy to stagnation and misery. It used to be that Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, sounded easily the most economically literate of the front-bench spokesman of either side (challenged only by the Lib Dem Business Secretary, Vince Cable). Now he sounds panicky and flustered. His arguments, that the recovery is shallow because it is based on consumption rather investment and exports, is technically correct but irrelevant. Labour’s alternative policies of fiscal stimulus were promoting an equally shallow recovery. Labour has no serious ideas on how to promote investment and exports. Meanwhile, the rising economy is giving government spokesmen more confidence: Lib Dem Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander sounded more in control of the economic arguments than he has ever been on the radio this week, managing to pick apart arguments presented by the FT’s Martin Wolf. The Tory Chancellor George Osborne, always more interested in politics than economics, is not wasting any opportunity to skewer Labour using much less sophisticated arguments.
Labour started their damage limitation strategy last Autumn by their leader, Ed Miliband: to try and change the subject. First there was the “cost of living crisis”, focusing on the failure of pay to keep up with prices. Now it is the top rate of tax, where they want to restore the 50% rate rashly reduced to 45% by the Coalition in 2012. Labour’s policy is popular, and the criticism coming in from business groups is unconvincing. These lobbyists say that reducing taxes, especially on the better off, is what is need to awaken dormant business investment. And the government has duly cut taxes (that top rate, and also the rate of company tax) without investment budging. The trouble is that Labour’s policies sound unfriendly to businesses, and therefore likely to stall growth and cause general taxes to rise.
It gets worse for Labour. The energy that drives their activists comes from opposition to austerity: fighting cuts which are seen as mean-minded and ideological. The theory was that the fighting the huge government deficit should be left until later, when the economy was growing. That “later” has now arrived. So how will Labour cut the deficit? Being specific about this, as they will have to be by 2015, will cause huge angst and disillusionment amongst their core supporters.
And in any case Britain’s electoral system is not so weighted in favour of Labour as some supposed. There is a pro-Labour bias in the distribution of seats it is true, but there is also a pronounced benefit to incumbency. When it comes to asking which seats the party will have to capture to win an outright majority it looks hard going. Battersea, the seat where I live, is a case in point. The Conservatives took it off Labour in 2010, but it looks very difficult for them to win back. In the last 3 years I have heard nothing from Labour, but regularly from the Tories; residents aren’t being given the impression that Labour are in contention. The hard fact is that modern politics, with fewer volunteer workers and high postal costs, is an expensive business. Labour surely do not have the money to capture enough marginal through trench warfare tactics in the marginals. They need a national landslide effect, such as they achieved in 1997 under the hated Tony Blair.
So what to do? A change in leadership is out of the question, especially as the most popular alternative, David Miliband, Ed’s brother, is out of contention. A ruthless reshuffle of the front bench might help, but only if it went alongside a wider change of strategy. I think promising more money for the NHS, struggling to keep up with demand, would play to their strengths. But they would have to have credible tax policies to back it up. Taxing just the very rich won’t quite cut it. But taxing a wider body of people would totally undermine their rhetoric on the cost of living. They have dug themselves into a real hole.
Their best bet may just be to keep calm and hope the Tories self-destruct. They show every sign of wanting to do so over the toxic issues of Europe and immigration. Labour’s best chance of benefiting from this tendency to suicide is to appear moderate and centrist. Not a good moment to lurch to the left.
And what of the Liberal Democrats? About half their voters at the 2010 election deserted them for Labour. The polls that show Labour sinking do not show any real benefit for the Lib Dems. But if the contradictions of Labour’s criticism become exposed in the next year or so, then they may get their opportunity. The centre ground, though treated with justifiable suspicion by many of their activists, is a sound place for them to stick to for now.