Oppositions, it is said, don’t win elections; governments lose them. In his 2011 Labour conference speech, Ed Miliband dismissed this axiom as “a consolation prize” for “leaders that have lost”. The danger for him is that he may soon join this unhappy club.
The recent run of polls showing the Tories ahead (their best performance since George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget in 2012) was not the result of any notable swing towards them. Rather, it reflected the drift away from Labour. As Miliband’s party has shed votes to the SNP, Ukip and the Greens, the Tories have emerged in front merely by standing still.
After failing to heal the divided right, David Cameron responded by seeking to create an equivalent fracture on the left. The plan worked. By gifting the Greens free publicity through his demand that they be included in any TV debates, the Prime Minister helped to ensure that they now regularly poll upwards of 7 per cent. That no Tory has asked the question of whether the Conservatives should be seeking to attract at least some of these voters themselves is a reminder of the shrunken ambition of the “natural party of government”.
For Labour, this trend is cause for both fear and hope. The fear is that, in a new era of six-party politics, the Tories could yet survive as the largest, even with a vote share below the 36 per cent they recorded in 2010. The resultant hope is that it requires only a modest recovery to win. It is easier, the logic runs, to squeeze recent insurgents than a government that voters have resolved to re-elect.
The rise of forces to Labour’s left at home and abroad has led to demands for it to colonise the territory that they occupy. On 26 January, as Syriza assumed power in Greece, 15 backbenchers signed a statement calling for the repudiation of austerity, the renationalisation of the railways and greater rights for trade unions. Others demand the abandonment of Trident and the introduction of a universal living wage.
To this, Labour strategists reply that there will be no left turn. They cite Cameron’s failed (and now abandoned) attempt to “out-Ukip Ukip” as a cautionary tale of the perils of fighting fringe parties on their own terms. Miliband’s team instead intends to emphasise the pre-existing radicalism of his programme and his personal commitment to combating inequality and climate change. A possible exception to this is rail policy. Discussion is taking place at senior levels about whether to toughen Labour’s current stance of allowing public-sector operators to bid for franchises as they expire. But no other concessions are foreseeable. In the case of Trident, a shadow cabinet minister told me: “Ed believes in it.” Miliband’s response to Syriza’s victory was to reaffirm his fiscal rectitude by pledging to “balance the books”.
Having devoted a full month to health policy, Labour is confident that it has achieved its ambition of putting the NHS “on the ballot paper”. Unlike in 2010, when the Conservatives succeeded in neutralising the issue, Cameron’s record in this area will receive sustained scrutiny. Labour is encouraged by polls showing that health is the issue of greatest importance to voters. For the Tories, the hope is that this will change as “winter pressures” fade and as a new eurozone crisis raises the salience of the economy.
Labour denies, however, that it intends to remain in what one critic described as a “health ghetto”. Now that it has published its ten-year plan for the NHS, its focus will move to the economy and the future of the young. A long-trailed pledge to reduce tuition fees, most likely from £9,000 to £6,000, will be unveiled in February. The policy is regarded as a vital means of retaining those who defected to the party from the Liberal Democrats and of winning back those who have migrated towards the Greens.
In the face of this novel threat to Labour’s left flank, fault lines are emerging over how to respond. The instinct of some is to deride the Greens as a crackpot outfit that would pursue negative growth, legalise membership of terrorist organisations and turn military bases into nature reserves. But others warn of the dangers of lapsing into the kind of attack politics that repels the idealistic young. They contend that instead the party should focus on burnishing its own appeal. The dirty work can be left to others. There is satisfaction within Labour ranks at the mauling that the Green leader, Natalie Bennett, received from Andrew Neil during a recent interview on the BBC’s Sunday Politics. “She’d be eaten alive in a TV debate,” one source surmised.
Should voters remain unenthused by their offers, the abiding hope of Labour and the Conservatives is that they will accept the remorseless logic of first-past-the-post and lend them their grudging support. In Scotland, Labour will accuse the SNP of creating the conditions for a Tory victory that it publicly suggests would be the worst of all outcomes. The challenge is making this case in a country where the parties are increasingly regarded as a common enemy.
In an unrestrained moment at last year’s Conservative conference, Cameron, channelling both Miliband and Tony Blair, told his party: “[If we] cannot defeat that complete shower of an opposition, we don’t deserve to be in politics.” Many in Labour regard their opponents with no less contempt. They have presided over the first parliament since the 1920s in which living standards will be lower at the end than at the beginning. They have missed every one of their original growth, debt and deficit targets. They have endured physical and intellectual defections to a right-wing splinter. Should Labour yet fall short, history will record the failure as its own alone