Let us start with an admission. The Conservatives did incredibly well on Thursday. The message of their economic incompetence, the bite of their cuts, their apparent sexism and xenophobia – all those things were not enough to overturn their brilliant strategy. Cameron played Labour and the LibDems against each other, and won. If Labour ignore this, if they attempt to sugar the pill, it will be at their peril.
More than that, like a good snooker player, Cameron has set up his next shot beautifully. The lack of Coalition presence in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as northern Labour heartlands, will allow them to play increasingly at their favourite game: Choke funds off at National level from Westminster, then claim that regional leadership is responsible for particular choices of front-line cuts – the “nothing to do with us” strategy.
I am concerned about the message Labour seem to be taking from all this. Influential commentators seem to be suggesting that these results will allow Labour to “position the party” in a way that can bring victory in a general election. The idea of “positioning a party” is a dangerous one. It involves the distasteful assumption that the voting public are at best unperceptive and at worst stupid.
Naturally, I accept there are complex factors at play. But I believe the basic reason the Tories did well in the South is that they are unashamedly Tory. They are a party of plutocracy and privilege, committed to helping those living the Thatcherite dream in leafy home counties. The reason the SNP did well in Scotland is similarly the focus and clarity of their message – even though their platform these days is distinctly to the left. They know what they stand for and state it clearly.
It is facile to believe that Blair brought victory to Labour in the nineties merely because he managed to reposition the party more centrally. Such a jejune interpretation ignores a key concept. Blair repositioned the party more centrally because that was where he genuinely stood. His strategy flowed from his more centralist world-view, not the other way around.
In any case, to try and duplicate the “Blair manoeuvre” is misconceived in two basic ways.
First, it ignores a most significant event – the spectacular collapse of unregulated, free-market dogma and the exposure of the idea that an economy can rely exclusively on financial markets for (bogus) growth, as a myth.
Second, it misjudges the extent of public antipathy towards modern-style politicians, dominated by spin and focus-group.
Adjusting one’s ideological basis on the hoof to fit the desired “positioning” or, even worse lacking an ideological basis altogether, is unpalatable to the vast majority of voters. It is the principal reason for the LibDems’ punishment at the polls. The Labour party must not go down that dark alley.
Cameron reveals his mind frequently. I feel I know him better than other politicians. I know what makes him tick and I know what he stands for. And perhaps the average “undecided” voter finds him as offensive in every way as I do. Is this enough of itself, to make someone vote for the completely unknown quantity that is Ed Miliband? I say it is not.
It seems to me that for the last few months the proverbial cart has been put very much before the horse. There is a shocking lack of discussion of what it is we believe, which is the right direction for the country, what is the right thing to do. There is instead a fanatical focus on presentation. As a result, rhetoric appears disconnected, passionless and devoid of substance. The voting public know this instinctively. They will never vote in large numbers for someone presented immaculately, but standing on quicksand.
The Labour party needs to differentiate itself, truly do so, from others. This is not a matter of trying to second-guess people’s reaction to shifting this policy a little to the right and that policy a little to the left. The most revolutionary thing a political party can do in 2011 is to stop talking at voters as if they are idiots and start talking to voters like adults; to speak earnestly, underpinned by principles and passion; for a leader to say: these are the things that matter to me and, if they matter to you too, this is my plan for making them happen and keeping them safe.
In short, Ed, you need to stop defining Labour with reference to the Conservatives – the inescapable implication of trying to “position the party”. There are qualities to Socialism which are superbly attractive to people, especially at a time of crisis. It speaks in terms of hope and fairness while others deal in fear and selfishness. How about anchoring the party in what we think is right and let others “position” and “spin” around us?
Incompetence, immorality and dishonesty are not exposed effectively by shouting across the floor of the Commons “he is rubbish, he is a crook, he is a liar”. They are only truly brought into sharp focus by being set against a leader behaving with competence, morality and honesty. This is the only way to be a true alternative to the ConDem government.
You never know. The voting public may be ready for that. I know I am.