Tuesday 13 May 2014

Labour's Poll Setback

Political people are a fragile lot. It doesn't take much for herds of us to start quaffing at the Last Chance Saloon. Two polls - admittedly "gold standard" polls - place Labour two points behind the Conservatives. Not ideal at all, far from it. Then one of the them, the ICM poll for the Graun, puts Labour trailing UKIP AND the Tories in next week's European elections. Not the music of an election victory party echoing from the future to the present. Naturally, two swallows don't a summer make but the excellent reputations ICM and Lord Ashcroft have, and these results' congruence with converging poll trends point to movement in the minds of the electorate, and that movement is not to the red team's benefit.

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 √Čoin 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.


Robert said...

If Labour loses in 2015 expect the Blairites to blame it all on Ed and tell us how Lab would have won if the unions hadn't imposed Ed on the party.

Anonymous said...

"So what on Earth is going on"

Most people are cretins?

Anonymous said...

What on earth makes you think Labour can grab UKIP's ground?

I am an ex lifelong Labour English voter.

Why would I vote for a Party that discriminates against the English?

It is alright in their book for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish to have Parliaments and Assemblies but when it comes to England they would rather Balkanize it.

I wouldn't trust Labour to boil a kettle never mind put them in charge of my beloved England again.

Phil said...

It's not enough to come here and say "Labour anti-English, wibble!" You have to provide some evidence.

For example, regional assemblies make sort of sense because of *numbers*. Many English regions are larger than Wales and Northern Ireland. Some have more people than Scotland.

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Germany's book. Their federal system there hasn't led to Balkanisation.

As for your beloved England. I don't think you can show more contempt for the country than voting for a bunch of backward, hate-filled Thatcherites. Think twice before you shit in the bed, because the generations after you are going to have to lie in it.

Robert said...

I think an English parliament makes sense. Ideally get it out of London. England's too dominated by London and the South East. An English Parliament based in Coventry or Warwick might help rebalance the country as would transferring some of the civil service out of London.

London is British rather than English although geographically in England. It's a multinational world city like New York with a completely different feel to it from the rest of the country. Arguably there are four nations in Britain; England, Scotland, Wales and London.

Metatone said...

Hopi's piece for me sums up my hobby horse disagreement with him, which I wouldn't bore you with, except that I think there's an interesting sociological question that comes out of it.

Shorter Hopi: we need to be more "prudent" and then we can get people to trust us with the economy.

Shorter me: 1997 was a special case of the most exhausted Tory party in decades, this government just isn't discredited that way, so attempts to be "more prudent/competent" than George Osbourne while staying trapped in his definition of what prudence is, just isn't going to work.

I can fill in the disagreement more if you want, but to get on to the interesting bit, sociology wise - what makes for a reputation for competence? It is not purely contingent (although there's some of that, if the economy is on the up, the Tories will get the credit) - still, the frame about what "looking competent" is worth investigating.

There's a suspicion in my mind that the frame of "economic competence" favours the right and it's not winning territory in the short term… we could think about how bankers and financial analysts from the City get prominent commentary on economics, we could think about the way "cuts" and "harsh measures" play as "competent." We could think about how Osborne bumbled into a recovery and will get lots of credit from the press. As an aside we could think about Ian Duncan Smith, or the botched NHS reforms and wonder why competence isn't in question...

To my mind there are 2 angles that long-term could bear fruit (although they are unlikely to save Ed M. in this election):

1) We need to chip away at the idea of the USA as a template. We're a small island country, so much of what comes from there just isn't going to work here, economically.

2) We need to ask why the competitors who are "giving us a good kicking" in world markets, such as Germany, S. Korea, China, Singapore all do so much "industrial policy" and "infrastructure investment" - yet "competent people", "grown-ups" in UK politics can't talk about these issues and policies as the lynch pins of growth...