It is halftime. For Conservatives, the post mortem is already beginning: when the match started, they had all but written their opponents off. Without a natural centre-forward, lacking depth in crucial areas, and exposed on the right flank, they reasoned that 2012 would be the year they dealt decisive blows against Labour. Now they trail due to a series of increasingly inexplicable own goals. They fell short in 2010 because voters did not quite trust them with the NHS: so they passed the health and social care bill. Others felt they were still the party of the rich: so they cut the 50p rate. Some believed they were not comfortable with modern Britain; so they squabbled publically over equal marriage.
Labour, on the other hand, cannot quite believe its luck. A party that began the year in a state of despair now has the wind at its back: there is an increasing sense that the promised land is within walking distance.
Both sides have hopes of a better second half. Most senior members of the coalition believe that, with the difficult legislation out of the way, the government’s middle period will be its easiest – it is no longer a question of horse-trading or parliamentary battles. This is the delivery phase, coalition insiders say. The problem is, of course, that it is not enough to talk about ‘delivery’: you have got to have something to actually deliver. Things will get worse, not better, for the Conservatives: do not forget that the worst of the cuts have yet to come, that the majority of the changes brought in by the universal credit are yet to be implemented, and that the full impact of what is left of the health and social care bill is still to be felt. For Labour’s part, there is a hope that the coalition’s missteps will further strengthen Labour’s position while the party scores decisive victories under an emboldened Ed Miliband.
The reality, however, is that the next three years will be harder going for both parties. Most outside observers wrote Labour off for most of 2011, which paradoxically was probably an advantage so early on in the coalition’s term. Labour will be under greater scrutiny than ever as 2013 wears on. More through accident than design, Labour is now a government-in-waiting. It will no longer be enough for Labour to simply oppose Conservative measures: they will have to propose their own, too. The Conservatives, meanwhile, are still wedded to an economic gamble that has failed and tied to a decaying coalition partner.
What should Labour’s priorities be in 2013? On an organisational level, the party still has a way to travel to be properly fighting fit for the general election: that has to be a priority sooner rather than later. But it is not just on the ground that Labour has to kick on in 2013; that has to happen in the air, too. Beyond implementing a bankers’ levy, it is still too unclear what a Labour government in 2015 would do: as scrutiny increases on Labour, its offer must also increase in scale and detail. That does not mean delivering a shadow budget or a blow-by-blow account of Labour’s cuts, but it should mean developing a clear sense of Labour’s priorities in office. The essential challenges of Britain’s care system – fixing adult social care and providing universal childcare – cannot take a backseat to deficit reduction, however urgent the task of retrenchment might be, the United Kingdom’s problems go beyond mere accountancy.
The Conservatives did not do the legwork in opposition, and were blown apart by the pressures of office. To avoid the same fate, Labour has to use 2013 to prepare for office in mind and in body.
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