Another week passes in Britain’s election campaign and the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s grip tightens. The more Labour tries to seize the initiative, the better it looks for her. Diane Abbott’s intervention yesterday simply proves the point. And yet she was trying to raise a subject people should be talking about more.
Ms Abbott is Labour’s shadow home secretary, and was the first black woman MP when she was first elected in 1987. But she has also become a bit of a figure of fun on the British political scene; this has racist and misogynist undertones which I deeply dislike. So I want to be very careful in what I say. Yesterday morning she introduced Labour’s topic for today, which was the idea that the party, if elected, would recruit 10,000 more policemen to act as “bobbies on the beat”. This was an attempt to move the debate on to specific issues of policy.
Now the call to have more bobbies on the beat is one of the traditional cries in British politics, and it has been around since bobbies on the beat were invented in the 19th Century. Everybody wants more visible policing from these reassuring community figures; it’s like calling for more nurses. So Labour’s first problem was the sheer banality of the proposal, and the fact that it looked like a silly election pledge and not a thought through policy. It is said that you can’t overestimate the intelligence of the public, but this looked like a valiant attempt. Then the costing fell apart under close examination. Meanwhile Labour promised to raise the money from reversing Conservative plans to reduces taxes on capital gains. This, of course, plays exactly to the Conservative economic narrative that any increase in the level of public service must be paid for by increased taxation – an idea designed to undermine Labour’s complaints about austerity policies.
This last was the initial source of challenge. The Tories quickly claimed that Labour had spent the same money several times over. This was the main focus when Ms Abbott was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. She did not defend herself confidently, but she got through. The whole policy still came through as a bit of election nonsense. Ms Abbott fell apart later in another radio interview, when she got into a complete muddle over the numbers. At this point it did not sound as if she had any grip on what the actual policy was. That became the story. Her party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, then defended her with what amounted to a shrug.
The Conservative election message is a simple one: the election is about competence, pure and simple. It is not about what the government will actually do – which will not stop them claiming public endorsement of a series of policies that will barely get mentioned. Labour’s dismal performance yesterday, from a badly designed policy announcement, to Ms Abbott’s lack of grip, and finally with Mr Corbyn’s apparent unconcern, could not have gone better for the Tories if they had scripted it.
And yet Labour were raising an important question. It seems to a lot of people that government cuts to services and benefits are eroding the very fabric of society. This includes the police, where community policing has been decimated. True, this may not have much immediate impact on crime levels – but community policing is about gathering intelligence, and making sure that the various components of public service join up. It is about solving problems before they become problems. So far it is not clear how much police cuts have impacted on levels of crime (recent rises in reported crime, which Labour used as justification for their intervention, look as if they are more to do with reporting methods). But Londoners have been alarmed about a sharp uptick in knife murders in the last few weeks. This could have been the basis of a much sharper attack on the government.
This is not actually about bobbies on the beat. In London it is not so much the vaunted bobbies being cut, as community support officers. It is also about cuts to youth facilities, mental health services and other interventions to prevent young people drifting into a life of crime (including early years interventions). The government seems unconcerned. They talk about helping “just about managing” citizens, and lifting an elite of poorer children into the middle class through selective schooling. The former idea has merit, but not at the expense of those who aren’t managing at all. The latter idea is trying to solve the wrong problem, and making things worse in the process. Labour is right to move the conversation on to these issues, and to challenge the Conservatives hard. But they are criminally ineffective.
All of which makes me very gloomy. Part of me actually wants Labour to be crushed in this election, following the way they behaved towards Liberal Democrats when they were in coalition. Labour stands for a certain complacent and tribal way of politics that we could all do without. But without them the Conservatives are being offered a blank cheque. And the signs are that they will not use that opportunity wisely.
My main hope is that the Liberal Democrats can grow up fast to fill the vacant space. That seems a better bet than the creation of a new political movement. They will need to broaden out their narrative from anger over Brexit to defending and reforming public services. They also need a way to challenge the Conservative economic narrative. Their leader needs to be less of the energetic campaigner and more a statesman in waiting.
Can Labour pull itself back? It has before, but it seems to lack the quality of politician who can do the job. They are set to replace the incompetent with the mediocre. If a route back could be found for David Miliband or, perhaps, Ed Balls, that would be another matter.
And maybe, as FT columnist Jana Ganesh says, we are paying the price for public indifference to politics, which is leaving the field open to people who are obsessive, but without the vision and grounding from which true leadership must be built. Perhaps things have to get worse before they get better. That is not good outlook for Great Britain.