So what on Earth is going on, and what can be done about it? As you might expect, everyone's offering their two penneth and dispensing advice. My stat-happy comrade Éoin Clarke offers 10 points for consideration. They include atoning loudly and often for past mistakes - a stratagem which, in my opinion, hands the Tories both the initiative and a get out of jail free card for their own record. And something called "economic nationalism". Hmmm. Mark Ferguson writing on LabourList demands all hands on deck. The party needs shaking out of its torpor, he argues. Mary Dejevsky sets her sights on personnel change and calls for Ed to drop his Balls. And, as usual, Dan Hodges rolls us some finest despair and invites Labour supporters to take a drag.
Dan argues in a fashion the most mechanical Marxist would find embarrassingly clunky that an improving economy = incumbent poll leads. He also argues that part of Labour's problem is that it expects the electorate to come to it, rather than the other way round. That may well be true. For example, voters are in favour of renationalising rail, utilities, and Royal Mail. They want more people to pay a 50% income tax rate. And, among other things, they want to see the back end of Academies. Labour are only shuffling towards those positions, if at all. Dan also notes the party "isn't credible" on the economy; that talking about a 'cost of living crisis' gifts the Tories an open goal. I imagine his advice would be for Labour, say, to commit itself to the government's projected spending plans for a post-election interval to dampen down jitters and uncertainty. Someone tell Ed Balls. And, Dan being Dan, there's Ed Miliband's hex-factor, of which more in a moment.
While these rebuttals undermine Dan's argument for a re-run of 1997, the point is on his two crucial measures - listening to "the people" and establishing "economic credibility" - Labour is already occupying that ground, so why has the poll lead melted? I think the arguments by Andy and Hopi are persuasive. First off, the general election polls are inflected by the hype surrounding UKIP's surge. Its "sod the lot of them" message has and will continue to attract support among "normal people". And despite the hopes of some professional commentators who should know better, UKIP ain't going anywhere. Both Andy's and Hopi's argument point to the same problem - for Andy, the way our antiquated electoral system works incentivises the chasing of a putative middle ground in key marginals which has a blanding effect on politics. Hopi's points build on this by suggesting that the disjuncture between a perceived Westminster elite and the rest means people have little faith in politics any more. Hence whether you shrink or widen Labour's "offer" doesn't really matter, no one believes things can change. And in that situation the incumbent holds all the advantages.
Then there is the Ed factor. Moan as much as you like, despite efforts at making British elections more presidential people tend to vote for the party, not the leader. In fact, a study based on the 1992 elections - the last time 'leadership' was deemed a significant factor by the media - it was found to have a negligible effect on overall outcomes. Is it likely to have changed qualitatively in the years since? With the declining power of unaccountable media frames, I doubt it. Sure, Ed is awkward and wonky, but do people seriously think replacing him with Yvette Cooper, who - let's face it - is pretty much the same, will make any difference? Time and again, history shows ditching leaders in the short run up to elections is doomed. Remember Australia?
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. There are no magic wands to hand. The only way to tackle anti-politics, as Lord Ashcroft's study of UKIP voters found was for Tories, and by extension Labour, is for parties to keep their promises, demonstrate evidence their policies are working, and show leadership on a range of issues. That's easier for an incumbent. For Labour, to win demands we turn up the activism - it's no accident bad polling comes at a time the party hasn't really made an effort in these European elections. It's necessary to tackle the Tories, UKIP, anti-politics, and voter abstentionism head on. They're the enemies. The LibDems, the Greens, the far left; they're distractions. And finally, I've blogged many times about Labour being trapped between principle and expediency - in short, we need more leadership. More unambiguous 'Labour will do this, Labour will do that". No shilly-shallying, no prevarication, no denying the radicalism of what's being proposed. Let's grab UKIP's ground and show the world what a real alternative looks like. In short, though the tinder is damp with cynicism Labour has to strive to capture the popular imagination. Difficult, yes. But there is no other way.