Imagine you are a management consultant called in by shareholders to appraise the performance of the management team of a large business. They were recruited a couple of years ago and, although inexperienced, took over with a highly controversial strategy for reducing the company’s debt. The workforce has since been radically reduced as have the pensions and benefits of those employees who remain. The hugely popular childcare scheme has been axed and the equally successful company healthcare scheme put out to tender.
Corporate morale is, not unsurprisingly, at an all-time low. Even worse, all of this sacrifice has not only been in vain but has proved positively counter-productive. The company’s growth has stalled, annual losses have increased and the corporate debt is higher than ever. The management team has itself recently had to admit that its flagship strategy (let’s call it Plan A) lies in tatters.
That is not all. Even the execution of their plan has been inept. Through almost laughable naivety and arrogance in their preparation for, and conduct at, a crucial meeting of the business’s European partners, the management team found itself isolated, tactically outplayed and unable to achieve any of its negotiating goals. At home, its management style has been characterised by poorly considered proposals which have, more often than not, been reversed at the first sign of trouble. Those with which they persist have been subjected to so many unforeseen amendments and variations that they have been rendered of Byzantine complexity making them not only incomprehensible but impracticable.
How then would you, the management consultant, rate this team? In what terms would you report back to the shareholders? Would you tell them that the company was in safe hands, that management was doing a good job in difficult circumstances and that their interests as shareholders were best served by letting this team carry on? I thought not. And yet that is precisely the current judgement of the electorate of this administration. Why?
The unfortunate truth is that politics isn’t a talent competition any more than it is simply a question of being right. If it were, then the fact that Labour consistently and accurately predicted the failure of Plan A – a plan whose corollary has been wildly unpopular cuts to valued public services – would have led to it now enjoying a 15-point lead in the polls and Ed Balls being feted as the economic seer of his age. While all of this may lead one to conclude that the electorate is irrational or capricious, I would argue that it merely continues to behave as it has always done. It has now, and ever has had, two primary criteria, to which all else is subsidiary.
Firstly, and as ever, it’s the economy, stupid. Everyone wants a world class health service, a state education system that realises the potential of every child and decent pension provision for all — and the polls tell us that the voters consistently trust Labour more than the Tories to prioritise, and to deliver, them. However, those same voters also know that without a stable, growing, economy, they will not happen, regardless of who is in power. And for so long as the electorate believes that Labour was responsible for, and has no credible solution to, the country’s current economic predicament, they will not trust it with the reins of government.
The polls tell us that this is precisely what they do believe and you could hardly blame them for doing otherwise. As I suggested in an article which I wrote in these pages nearly a year ago, the Tories’ greatest triumph since the election has been the embedding of the twin myths that it was the profligacy of Labour (‘the maxing out of the credit card’) that caused the deficit to balloon and that the only sensible response is therefore savagely to cut public expenditure.
It pains me to reflect that Labour has done so little since then to disabuse the public. Now that Osborne’s Plan A has been exposed as economic illiteracy, it may find a more receptive audience for its message of ‘too far too fast’ but it needs to work far, far harder to deliver its own narrative. Labour must explain both the cause and its solution in straightforward terms that we can all understand. Do neither and we may as well all sit back and wait for the Tories to win a majority at the next election.
Secondly, and no less importantly, the country likes its leader to look the part. Whatever one’s view of Cameron – and, believe me, mine could not be much more negative – he looks like a prime minister. He is telegenic, charismatic, confident and assured. He is seen (paradoxically given his administration’s record) as decisive, even ruthless. These are qualities which the electorate likes and admires. To prove my point, and without naming names, I invite you to consider the characteristics of those party leaders who have achieved electoral success in the last thirty years and those who have not.
The sad truth is that unless your leader has, and is seen to have, those qualities – in short, unless he looks the part – you are whistling in the wind. That is why a stock question of the pollsters is whether you can visualise candidate X standing outside Downing Street. We cannot ignore the fact that Ed Miliband is currently failing that acid test. He can console himself that, for some time after she was elected Tory leader, so did Margaret Thatcher. It took a lot of time, hard work and the magic of Gordon Reece and the Saatchi brothers to mould her into a plausible prime minister – but it worked. Time, however, is not on his side. We live in volatile times and we cannot assume that a general election is years hence. Ed, and those around him, need to recognise the problem and act on it, urgently and effectively.
Labour can theorise as much as it wants about the mythical centre ground of politics and how to capture it. It can do good work, and make transient headlines, on phone tapping, Murdoch, bankers’ bonuses and executive pay. It can echo public anger about pensions, austerity and cuts to public services. But without a coherent and compelling narrative on the economy and a leader who genuinely looks like a prime minister-in-waiting, Labour will not only fail to win the next general election, it will become a political irrelevance.
John Whitting is a QC and member of the Labour Party.