“The quiet crisis” was at one point going to be a theme for Ed Miliband’s campaign to highlight the consequences of coalition economic policy. The crisis in question was the discreet torment of families that gather around their kitchen table every night wondering how to make ends meet; what expense to spare next. It is a nice phrase, but it now better describes the state of the Labour party under Miliband’s leadership.
It isn’t a full-blown, noisy crisis with public rows and resignations, doors slamming, crockery breaking. It is a case of MPs, shadow ministers, party members, fellow-travellers in the media all holding their heads in their hands (metaphorically; sometimes literally) and wondering whether the Labour leader can mount a serious challenge to the coalition, let alone win an election at some point.
The collective despond explains, in part, why Lord Glasman’s article in this week’s New Statesman has received so much attention. It is an interesting critique of Ed Miliband’s project, accusing the leader of excessive caution, suggesting he is being held back by deference to figures from the last government (i.e. Ed Balls) and urging some bolder more imaginative action to have an impact in 2012.
But it is the author as much as the analysis that makes it a significant intervention. Glasman was ennobled by Miliband and has been, over the past year, a close advisor. (He is not, nor has ever been, in any meaningful sense of the word, a “guru”.) If this is what Ed’s friends are saying, just imagine the view among his enemies and rivals. Some of the harsh language in the NS column no doubt expresses the frustration of someone who was once closer to the leader than he is now – a case of political love unrequited. And yet you hear variations on Glasman’s theme from many quarters of the party. The prescriptions are always different but the underlying accusation is the same: caution, indecision and a failure to capture the public imagination. The passages of Glasman’s column that have been most quoted elsewhere are the ones that express in a public forum what plenty of people in the party are saying in private – including people who think Ed Miliband can’t run away from Glasman’s “Blue Labour” ideas fast enough. In other words, even people who disagree with the prescription recognise the diagnosis.
The defence from Miliband’s team amounts to an elaborate call for patience: the party has bounced back remarkably well from crushing defeat; it is more united than ever before; people are still giving the coalition the benefit of the doubt; the full scale of Tory economic failure hasn’t set in yet; the media are hostile. This was all neatly expressed in a New Year strategy memo leaked to the Times, including the memorable lines that Labour has made “the best recovery of any opposition party in the history of opposition parties” and that comparisons between Ed Miliband and William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard are “wide of the mark”.The party would rather such comparisons were donwright impossible.
There is much truth in the analysis underpinning the patience strategy. The party is indeed united and has bounced back from an election drubbing. Labour mostly leads in opinion polls. But the context is peculiar – Labour lost the last election, but the Tories didn’t win it. No-one knows how well the party should be doing at this point in the electoral cycle because the coalition (which contains a kind of in-built opposition mechanism in the form of the Lib Dems) is such a political novelty. Unity, meanwhile, has been bought by avoiding difficult choices, especially in the discussion of public spending and how Labour would reform public services.
As for the poll advantage, it melted away when David Cameron grabbed a few populist headlines with his European veto manoeuvre. That confirms to many opposition MPs that what modest lead they have is soft – an expression of distaste for the generally glum state of the nation and not a serious endorsement of Labour as a potential party of government. They’ll give Miliband more chances, though. He hasn’t yet proved beyond doubt that his strategy of creeping up on the government will fail. The problem is, of course, that the only way you know when a creeping up strategy has failed is when you get right up close and find the enemy saw you coming a mile off. And by then it’s too late.