Wednesday 27 January 2016

Election Stories 2: The Labour Party

Part One looked at the narratives of the big winners and smaller losers in the 2015 general election. We now turn to the Labour party.

So, what was Labour's story in the last election? As far as I can tell — and I'm trying to be generous here — it was:

Mumble mumble squeezed middle burble rail fares something utility bills.

Ed Miliband thought a manifesto was a substitute for a story. There were some worthy policies in there, but no inspiring narrative.

When Miliband condensed his offer down to six bullet points, they were positively embarrassing, even before he had them carved onto a big lump of rock. Campaigning for a strong economy isn't a story; it's like saying kittens are cute and chocolate is delicious. That's very nice, but it's no reason to give away the keys to a whelk stall, let alone 10 Downing Street.

Back in its heyday, New Labour had a very successful story:

The conflict between socialism and capitalism is obsolete. We will manage public finances prudently, enable the free market, and deliver good public services. We are united, competent, and above all, modern.

They were helped along by the Major-era Tories, who looked anything but united, competent or modern. The New Labour story is now a rusting pile of wreckage, disappointment and broken promises; but in its time, it was a huge success.

Ed's ridiculous stone tablet harks back to the pledge card used by Labour in the 1997 election. In contrast to the 2015 rock, the 1997 card listed specific goals. "Maximum class size of 30" was a commitment; "strong economy" is an empty platitude. More than that, the card played into a message of managerial competence, which was a big part of the New Labour story.

The Edstone was a kind of cargo cult electioneering. A landslide victory was once accompanied by a simple list of bullet points; therefore bullet points will bring election victory. It exposed Miliband's lack of any wider storyline.

Nobody, probably not even Blair himself, thinks dusting off the New Labour message will win any more elections. Labour needs a fresh story. What has its leader articulated? As far as I can make out, Corbyn's story for the voters is:
Give peace a chance. Give socialism a chance, too. Also, please overlook my party fighting itself like a sack full of angry cats.
If Labour doesn't find something much better, and soon, we can expect a Tory landslide in 2020.

"Give peace a chance" is the dominant theme of Corbyn's leadership. To some extent this reflects events, such as Parliamentary votes on Trident renewal and airstrikes in Syria. It's also Corbyn's only major policy interest.

Corbyn was in parliament for thirty-two years before he became Labour leader. He was associated with no significant initiatives in domestic policy, being too busy with the grand issues of war and peace. No doubt that was a principled decision on his part, but it left him unprepared for the party leadership.

Even more so than Green pledges on the environment, foreign and defence policy are detached from mundane concerns. Peace abroad is all well and good, but what does Corbyn want to do at home?

I don't know, and as I have said, I follow these things more closely than most. I strongly suspect Corbyn doesn't know either, apart from vague aspirations to increase public spending and regulation. The Corbynistas seem to assume British voters are thirsting for socialism, and don't really care about the details. Merely offering a clear alternative to capitalism will be so self-evidently wonderful that it propels Labour to election victory.

Well, maybe. But history suggests it will need something more than that.

Even if Labour's new story resonates with the voters — and so far, there is no solid evidence that it does — there is the matter of internal party conflict. The overwhelming majority of MPs do not trust Corbyn or believe he is up to the job. Senior members of the shadow cabinet make no secret of their disdain; but he has so few supporters in the parliamentary party that he is unable to fire them.

The upshot is that Labour looks incapable of forming a coherent policy platform, let alone a government. The Conservatives will not be slow to exploit these divisions in the next election campaign.

I'm trying to see a way out of the wilderness for Labour. It has a multitude of flaws, but it's the closest thing the UK has to a progressive party of government. For now, the view is of unrelieved gloom. I don't see Labour getting its act together before the 2020 election, and afterwards there is no knowing who will be left to pick up the pieces.

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