Conference preview: Labour Party
Before the election last year the talk was all about how it would be a good election to lose. With cuts on the agenda for any government, and the New Labour project mired with distrust and Gordon Brown, the thinking was that the Labour Party could use this time out of government to take stock and come back with fresh ideas and impetus. As things stand, it hasn’t quite panned out that way. For starters, the leader was meant to be David Miliband. They were also meant to be riding a wave of anti-government anti-cuts sentiment. It was thought that the public would be crying out for an alternative economic strategy and after pounding the Lib Dems into insignificance, would be turning towards Labour for it. By the time the next election came the prediction was the public would have been so starved of prosperity by years of austerity that they would not be willing to vote in a Tory government no matter what the present day circumstances may be. Labour would then get to reap the rewards of an improved economy, a la Tony Blair. To say things aren’t quite going to plan is an understatement. A Labour government seems a million years away, and despite the coalition government having faced public outrage over many of their domestic non-economic policies, have not enjoyed any anti-government bounce. The closest they have got is picking up floundering Lib Dem voters, but doubts hang over the solidity of these votes and whether they would be enough to put the party back into government come 2015. Taking all of these factors into account, Ed Miliband and the Labour Party face a tough party conference, and this is without even mentioning the various problems Ed Miliband faces within his party.
The reason why the Labour Party find themselves in this position is because the Tories and the coalition government have seized the narrative on the economy. They have successfully managed to shoulder the blame for the current economic climate with Labour. Despite whatever Labour may think about this, be it fair or unfair, they cannot be in denial about this state of affairs. It happened while Labour were busy concerning themselves with the leadership election, but the danger is it could happen again. The Tories have already been blaming global factors for the new economic dangers we face. While this may be true, if in the 2015 election global factors were blamed for the current economic situation, and Labour blamed for the previous one, this would be a political disaster for the Labour Party. The “we had no alternative” line will continued to be swallowed by the public. Any anti-cuts sentiment will continued to be misdirected at the Labour Party. That is why they cannot allow the Tories to get away scot-free from the current climate. Without a economic alternative however, they will not be to do this.
The frustrating part for Labour strategists is they have parts of an economic alternative, they just haven’t been able to convey that to the public. When an unexpected government windfall came through last year, Ed Balls said to spend it on affordable housing. Ed Balls has also been pushing the case for a slower pace of deficit reduction. This year, Ed Balls has not only opposed the rise in VAT, but has been saying to cut VAT even further than the previous level in order to stimulate growth. Ed Balls has also promoted a policy of re-introducing the bankers bonus tax in order to pay for it all. Do you see the common denominator here? It’s Ed Balls who has been saying all of this. Ed Miliband meanwhile has been spending his time talking about the NHS and other domestic issues. The only issue the public care about at the moment is the economic situation. Every other policy decision is being taken in the context of the cuts. At times it almost seems as if Miliband has been avoiding talking about the economy.
This is not helping matters. Yes the Labour Party find themselves in a situation where the public have no confidence in anything they say on the economy. This is an issue which needs to be addressed though, and can only be done by speaking about it rather than ignoring it. It seems as if Ed Balls is running a separate agenda on the economy all by himself. Given the current situation for the party, this needs to change. The two Eds need to show some unity on the issue. They need to counter the claims of “there is no alternative” and start showing the alternative. This can’t be done by Ed Balls challenging George Osborne to a dual every now and then. It needs to be done as a party. The entire party needs to start singing from the same hymn sheet and hammering home the point of the economy at every opportunity. This needs to start at the top, with Ed Miliband and his shadow chancellor, together.
This leads us neatly onto the next problem that Ed Miliband faces, the issue of unity within his party. It is clear the party is fragmented, and he is not enjoying the full support of his MPs. On the Ed Balls issue, I suspect that Ed Balls is purposely running his own agenda away from the leadership, which I presume he expects to fail. My hunch is that Yvette Cooper is being lined up to replace Miliband by one faction of the party or another, and by distancing themselves from the leadership now, will be able to define themselves away from the leadership when they take over. They being Balls and Cooper. With Blairites still smarting over losing Tony Blair to Gordon Brown and then David Miliband to the “son of Brown”, there has been little prominent support for Ed Miliband.
When Ed Miliband was choosing his shadow cabinet, he initially chose Alan Johnson to be his shadow chancellor. His thinking was that Ed Balls would try and use the position to build a power base against him, much like Gordon Brown did to Tony Blair. He eventually had no choice but to turn to Balls. Now he has, I suspect he still has the same suspicions over Balls. Miliband needs to forget about these now. The Labour Party is desperately losing the battle over the economy. This needs to change no matter what the cost, to pardon a pun. If in order to show some unity over the economy, and to actually fight the battle rather than his current tactic to shy away from it, he needs to concede some power to Balls, then so be it. This may not be good for the party long-term, but the long-term for the party and the long-term for Ed Miliband look two completely different prospects at the moment. If they lose this current short-term economic battle of how much damage the Tories policies are doing to our economy, he will lose the election and perhaps his leadership even before that anyway. Ed Miliband needs to concentrate on the short-term, it’s all he has. To aide him, he would do well to bring David Miliband back into the fold. It will add another big beast to the shadow cabinet and provide him with some back up. It is far fetched for David Miliband to start plotting a leadership coup against Ed Miliband, and is a risk he needs to take.
It is a shame that the Labour Party leadership once again are having to deal with internal fighting. That is the result of the MPs and the members not having their choice as leader, and as such is hardly surprising. Ed Miliband can silence his critics however. If he manages to gain momentum and ground on the Tories, and show that he has the makings of a leader capable of guiding the party back into power, his detractors within the party will fall. He needs to address the issues he has been shying away from though. It is telling that his most successful moments as leader have been in the face of events. This is not a strategy. It’s time for Ed Miliband to bite the bullet, before the knife is sticking out of his back.
There will be various other bits and pieces going on at the conference, but there are only two shows in town, the two Eds. A Labour Party star in the making is Chuka Umunna, so it will be interesting to see if he can make any waves.
Posted on September 24, 2011, in Labour Party, Looking Forward, Party Politics and tagged conference, economy, Ed Balls, Ed miliband, labour party, Labour Party conference. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.