We cannot be killed

'Shortly there will be an election, in which Labour will increase its majority'

Let’s be clear: this is a mad one. You won’t have heard it anywhere else, but you can take it from me. At the age of 38, this is my 17th consecutive Labour Party conference, and I’ve never been to one quite like this.

It’s in the nature of collective hysteria that no single act can be adduced to prove its existence. But there is a fin de siecle, self-destructive, decadent craziness about Conference 2007. Somewhere in the wads of twenty somethings and thirtywouldbes jamming the chintzy Bournemouth bars long after they’re normally silent lurks the jitterbugging desperation of the Twenties before the Crash, Berlin between the wars, London as Imperial Glory died with its queen. The collective psyche of this group of individuals who’ve never had it so good has rarely been so uncertain.

This is not a columnar conceit. I do not really have a thesis; no point to prove. I can only tentatively explain this atmosphere. But nor am I wrong. This mood is as real as the grief in the church. I am simply reporting what is here.

Perhaps the magnitude of the moment we face is too great for us collectively to bear. Shortly there will be an election, in which Labour will increase its majority, and in so doing utterly shatter the glass paradigm of cyclical politics which has contained us for the century since 1906. This ought to herald another decade of strong, confident, consensual Labour government. Which will finally and irrevocably transform the nature of politics and civic life in Britain.

That is a frightening responsibility. The young princes who now stride the parade ground with the confidence born of aristocratic schooling can never be afraid. They never have been. Like latter day Pushkins drilled in the elite academy of Brownian blitzkrieg, they are bursting with their sense of destiny. It’s not the Milibands, the Ballses or the Burnhams who are unconsciously nervous. This is the moment for which they were created. They are ready.

But for the rest, the officer class as much as the rank and file, it’s a daunting inheritance. The decade to date has been a long march to sustain. Those who led it have changed and re-changed, been shuffled and sidelined, died and retired from the field. But we – the poor bloody soldiers - are still here. Our boots are fresh and our uniforms re-supplied. We are rested and invigorated. Morale, if it anywhere was, can only be high. Yet still it’s a decade since we have been home. As we prepare to strike out again from our camp, we don’t wonder which army will triumph, but begin to ask what we will do if this march never ends.

For, that, indeed, is what this madness is: it’s the hour that we see that the march never ends.

We’ve learned that we cannot be killed. And we’ve come to accept that we’ll never go home. But now is the light headed dance, the fretful mazurka, of an army that knows it can never arrive.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.