Saturday, January 21, 2012

Too late for Ed to change the public's minds

So was it a political masterstroke as some pundits argued, or was it the beginning of the end of his leadership of the Labour Party – as two of the union barons who originally backed him for the job have claimed?

Opinions were certainly divided this week about Ed Miliband’s decision to come out in support of the coalition government’s pay freeze.

For Len McCluskey of Unite and Paul Kenny of the GMB, the move marked the end of Mr Miliband’s “bold attempt to move on from Blairism” and would lead to “certain electoral defeat.”

Others, though, saw the decision to accept the cutbacks – and take on the public sector unions in the process - as a vital first step towards restoring the economic credibility so crucial to Labour’s prospects.

Mr Miliband was of course following what is a well-worn strategy for Labour leaders – seeking to gain traction with the electorate by attacking their own side.

Contrary to popular belief, it was not started by Neil Kinnock at Bournemouth in 1985, but by Jim Callaghan almost a decade earlier in a speech to the Labour conference which later became paraphrased as “The Party’s Over.”

“We used to think we could spend our way out of a recession. I tell you in all candour that option no longer exists,” he told the comrades, burying decades of Keynesian economics and inadvertently paving the way for the Thatcherite consensus.

Mr Kinnock took it a stage further with his attack on the grotesque chaos of Militant-run Liverpool, before the tactic was perfected by Tony Blair, who seemed at times to want to define his entire leadership in opposition to his own party.

As Mr McCluskey was not slow to point out, Mr Miliband had initially attempted a very different approach following his surprise elevation to the job in the autumn of 2010.

His own conference address last autumn, which I described at the time as one of the bravest and most ambitious political speeches of modern times, represented no less than an attempt to refashion the political consensus on his own terms.

Fans of Yes, Minister will of course recall that, in civil service speak, ‘brave’ means ‘potentially littered with banana-skins,’ while ‘ambitious’ means ‘foolhardy,’ and so, alas, it has proved.

The largely negative response to that speech and Mr Miliband’s subsequent inexorable slide in the opinion polls seems to have persuaded him that a new approach is now needed, with the public sector pay announcement constituting at least a partial recognition that the argument over spending cuts has been lost.

But will it succeed in restoring his political fortunes? Well, on this score, it is perhaps instructive to look back at how those previous Labour leaders fared when they decided to take on their own parties.

Jim Callaghan, as conservative a leader as Labour has ever had in some respects, was simply not believable as a party reformer because of his previous track record in blocking Harold Wilson’s attempts to curb union power in the 1960s.

Likewise Neil Kinnock, who before dazzling us all at Bournemouth in 1985 had spent most of his leadership prevaricating over whether to support or condemn Arthur Scargill’s conduct of the 1984-85 miners’ strike.

And so despite its near-mythical status among politics-watchers, the Bournemouth speech had less impact on Kinnock’s popularity with the wider electorate, as was shown when he was soundly defeated by Margaret Thatcher in the general election 18 months later.

Tony Blair, however, was different. Within months of becoming leader, he had made his direction of travel clear, venturing where all his immediate predecessors had feared to tread by abolishing Clause Four of the party’s constitution.

The public was convinced from the start that he was a new kind of Labour leader, and unlike Kinnock and Callaghan, they duly rewarded him at the ballot box.

It is often said of political leaders that what they do in their first 100 days defines them thereafter, that it is in this period that the public makes up its mind about them.

For good or ill, I think the public has made up its mind about Ed Miliband. And decided he is not going to be their Prime Minister.

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1 comment:

Writeangle said...

Any increased Labour spend will increase public spending. This increases the size of the 'loss' side UK of the balance sheet. To reduce the deficit requires money invested in the private sector directly to boost exports. Big companies have money but will not invest where there is no increase in demand. Public sector projects will never deliver an increase in exports so will leave us with the balance of payments problem.