How 'optimism' might start to wear thin for Labour

Amid lacklustre support and waning poll leads, the scale of the challenge for Ed Miliband is clear.

In his New Year message, released today, Ed Miliband says that his party's mission in 2012 is "to show politics can make a difference. To demonstrate that optimism can defeat despair."

Optimism might be exactly what the Labour Party needs, given the scale of the challenge they face. The Times (£) today reports that the party's much-vaunted "registered supporters" scheme has got off to a slow start. The plan, aimed at widening Labour's support base, allows people to indicate support for the party without parting with any money. Announced with great fanfare at the Labour conference in September, Miliband and Peter Hain said they were aiming for 50,000 registered supporters. So far there are only 500.

Hain has downplayed the slow start, saying that they have until the next party conference in September to achieve the target. But it is dispiriting news, particularly coming off the back of a Guardian/ICM poll earlier this week which found -- yet again -- that Labour is struggling to convince voters to trust them on the economy. Forty-four per cent of respondents rated David Cameron and George Osborne as better placed to "manage the economy properly", compared with just 23 per cent for Miliband and Ed Balls. The Tory lead has doubled since ICM's October poll.

This news is hardly surprising: it reiterates the findings of more or less every poll since the election. As my colleague Rafael Behr reports in this week's New Statesman, this stasis is taking its toll on morale:

The mood among opposition MPs hovers between frustration and despair. The economy is stagnant, unemployment is rising, living standards are falling and the government's plans are a palimpsest of rewritten targets and faulty forecasts. Yet Ed Miliband still fails to land blows on the Prime Minister or persuade voters that he would do the job better. The Labour leader's defence is that the defeat of 2010 is still too recent, making it unreasonable to expect a sudden renaissance. The plan so far has been to describe what is wrong with British capitalism (it is unfair) and then assemble an alternative vision (a work in progress), ready for the moment when the voters are ready to listen.

'Establishing economic credibility' has long been the vague aim, but how exactly can this be achieved? One set of suggestions has been published today, coinciding with Miliband's New Year message.

In a pamphlet for the Policy Network think tank, the shadow pensions minister, Gregg McClymont, and the Oxford historian, Ben Jackson, argue that Labour must avoid falling into the "tax and spend" trap:

Labour can sidestep the electoral trap being sprung by the Conservatives by refusing to be driven back to its core support. A patriotic appeal to the nation to improve growth and living standards, not a simple defence of the public sector and public spending, is crucial to foiling Conservative attempts to render Labour the party of a sectional minority.

Drawing on the 1930s and 1980s, both decades in which the Tories won elections despite severe economic hardship, the pamphlet argues that these successes depended on painting Labour as "profligate" and "incompetent", and being able to deliver just enough prosperity to retain support.

Writing in the Guardian, the report's authors endorse Miliband's emphasis on the "squeezed middle" and the need for a new growth model as "the right political judgement".

That may be, but "optimism" inside Labour will be running out if this judgement does not start to translate into a tangible measure of success -- increased support and stronger poll leads. The pressure is on for 2012.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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