Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Labour's shifting sands - from general election to general strike

Since the 2010 General Election delivered its' stunning no-result, commentators and strategists alike have been struggling to cope with the change this has wrought on British politics.

The outright dismay seen among LibDems at PM Cameron's schoolboy confusion between negotiating tactics and demands backed by a less-than-cast-iron veto is merely the latest episode of the reality saga - anti-europeans can continue to crow before the dawn of a closer Euro-state they perversely helped instigate, blind to the fact they will be left behind, weaker and more isolated as the economic storms rage about us.

But the main story remains as yet undisturbed - how is Labour coping with the fact of coalition?

In hindsight the seeds of this question were sown when Brown replaced Blair in an uncontested ballot to hammer the final nail in the coffin of 'big tent' politics and destroy the 'New Labour' coalition. Part-strategy, part-methodology, Blair's 'big tent' combined with his 'big conversation' to include dissenters and win votes - quite literally this helped the vibrant Blair reach the parts stale Brown couldn't.

So when Cameron and Clegg hatched the Conservative-LibDem coalition after Brown attempted to dictate terms to the junior party it was clear Labour's subsequent leadership run-off would need a real contest and a real debate. Instead, what the public got was the reassertion of the internal status quo distracted by sibling rivalry, as the real powers behind the party took their revenge, by fixing the nominations to purge the shadow cabinet of those they denounced as 'Blairites'.

During this period of the parliament the trade union-led opposition to cuts verged on extreme ideology, completely ignoring Labour's earlier 'Darling Plan' as the party turned inwards during the process. Even Roy Hattersley was quoted at the time criticising that "Too much time has been spent fighting the battles of the past and talking about the cuts."

Yet it wasn't until the attempted 'general strike' the day after Osborne's Pre-Budget Report this Autumn that commentators started to wake up to the fact Labour had sprung the political trap they'd set and had come away boasting a "tattered reputation for economic competence."

Labour's populist rhetoric on economic strategy has also run parallel with their stance towards LibDems. Ed Miliband effectively won the leadership as the figure most able to 'transcend the old factionalism', yet he did so by mutely echoing the unionist outrage at the new coalition occupying Downing Street and stating himself to be 'appalled by the Lib Dem surrender to the Tories', going so far as to state "They are a disgrace to the traditions of liberalism."

While he was correct insofar as liberals are a notoriously self-critical bunch and it was a simple task to play for sympathy along those lines, calling for members and ministers alike to jump ship and defect for the sake of progressivism, it was shocking for him to issue judgement on those terms considering he professes to believe in the fraternity of democratic socialism and he had only recently disposed of his own brother. Judge thyself, neighbour.

Such inconsistency was always liable to be unsustainable, and so it proved when opinion polls began solidifying showing Labour would require LibDem support in the event of a fresh election to hold a majority. Miliband's outright opposition began to be tempered by this reality, and rather than obsinate refusal to cooperate with LibDems because of apparent policy betrayals he conceded explorations of a future LabLib coalition, personalising his attacks and stating his demand for the resignation of Nick Clegg before a potential deal with LibDems in any future hung parliament.

This first shift in Miliband strategy was balanced by elevating Ed Balls to his shadow cabinet in order to press the argument that the coalition government was weak on economic growth because the coalition was dominated by 'ideological' voices determined to prosecute a policy of austerity and 'starve the beast' of state. But while the Eurozone crisis continued to grow so the threat of spreading contagion undercut internal Labour consensus as the spectre of the 'Darling Plan' returned to haunt them.

Now, with Europe dominating the meta-debate on the economy so a new shift in attitude towards the LibDems is becoming apparent as prominent figures see an opportunity to drive a wedge between Clegg-the-negotiator and Cameron-the-vetoer.

Seen in this light Douglas Alexander's 'genuine offer' to cooperate with LibDems represents a coded message that the balance of debate within Labour has moved away from Balls' political opportunism allied to trade union intransigence. The shadow Foreign Secretary's argument that "the public will reward politicians who show serious statesmanship, not shrill showmanship in the face of economic events" stakes his unspoken claim as a potential alternate leader, and Ed Miliband's appropriation of his line that "Cameron walked out having prevented nothing from happening and having failed to secure any of his demands; that is not called a veto - that is called defeat" is the perfect demonstration of who is really scripting those soundbites made at the despatch box.

Indeed, with the Labour leader's popularity among grassroots members collapsing since July due primarily to his position on the strikes and his tenure in the job increasingly being marred by his fundamental errors at a strategic level, questions are being openly raised about Ed Miliband's ability to take Labour through to 2015 and the next General Election - not least by brother David's comments that he may make another leadership bid to keep the rumour mill churning (albeit only in his home region), or from descriptions of his 'woeful performance' when offered an open goal at PMQs on Europe - from supposedly friendly sources!

Most jarring in Ed Miliband's lexicon is his insistence that his opposition "won't take lectures" on economics because he doesn't like who's giving them. It indicates the truthfulness of less-friendly reports that Miliband is overreliant on his shadow Chancellor: "Ed Balls is too stubborn or too vain to realise his strategy isn't working... The Labour Party is being sacrificed on the altar of his vanity." So say 'internal sources'.

Labour's underlying problem, however, is the longstanding division between their heartlands and their headlands - between voters who are predominantly northern and working-class and candidates who are predominantly southern metropolitan intelligensia. This tension is perfectly highlighted by the two siblings, progeny of Jewish emigre and Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband, and representatives for the relatively deprived and insular areas of Doncaster North and South Shields.

While these areas typify the still raw legacy of 80s Thatcherite social conflict the oft-quipped veritas that such  constituencies would elect a donkey if it wore a rosette of the right colour remain true, although so too does the sad fate of 'lions led by donkeys' into the brutal hailstorm of political debate.

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