A midterm review of Labour
At the midway point in parliament, the coalition renewed their vows. Gone was the bonhomie displayed in the sun-drenched Downing Street rose farden in May 2010, and instead a cold, formal, wood-panelled room was chosen as the suitable backdrop. The midterm review, rather generously self-marked by the government, nonetheless highlighted the sheer ambition of the preceding two and a half years. Messrs Cameron and Clegg have embarked upon stuttering deficit reduction, last night’s grubby welfare changes, fundamental restructuring of the NHS, reforms to the police and planning, military intervention in Libya, pupil premiums and many more besides. It is somewhat startling that any coalition remains at all given the swirling disagreements on myriad issues including Europe, Lords reform and the Leveson report. But, compared to the decidedly radical coalition agreement that greeted government in 2010, the newly fashioned policy agenda for the second half of the term is unequivocally tame. Cameron and Clegg have clearly put preservation of the coalition at the heart of their agenda, and the argument is settled once and for all; the next election will be May 2015.
As the press and politicians pore over the review, and look for any signs in the runes as to what is to come for the governing parties, Labour has a chance to stop and take stock. Two and a half years from now, will Labour have ousted the first peacetime coalition since the 1930s? Ed Miliband undoubtedly had a good 2012. He had to, after the welcome he was given upon his election. Labour began this parliament as a party with some hope of winning the general election and a leader with little chance of convincing the public that he was fit to be prime minister. Now, slowly but surely, perceptions are drifting away from those forged in the immediacy of September 2010. It is a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Miliband’s personal ratings have moved ever upwards since a distinctly unimpressed electorate first glanced in his direction. In an electoral system as now quasi-presidential as the UK, it is only right to focus on the prize figurehead, but what of other key Labour figures. Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy continue to impress in their respective roles, while Andy Burnham remains close to the Labour heart as a defender of our beloved NHS. Rachel Reeves, Chuka Ummuna and Liz Kendall are surely the next generation of Labour frontbenchers who are already making their make in Westminster’s hallowed halls, but it is the economic question that hangs so darkly over Labour’s head.
A year ago the British public tended to think that the spending cuts were necessary, that Labour was more to blame for them, that George Osborne was a bad chancellor whose polices were unfair and directly impair their personal finances. However, they did not trust the Labour party to do any better. By and large, to an astonishing degree, the public still think that today. The economy will dominate the 2015 election and, on this key test, Labour and Ed Balls are still found wanting. The recovery is weak and faltering, and an increasing number of UK businesses expect the UK to slip into a triple-dip recession. If Labour cannot improve these findings, then Cameron really will be prime minister until 2020.
Labour did, though, at last find a much sought-after ‘narrative’ for this parliament. We are, to use the oft-used phrase, the ‘one nation’ party. It is an audacious raid deep into Conservative heritage. And it is easy to see the potency and potential behind this two hundred year old slogan. But the danger is that it will simply be lost on the electorate. Michael Ashcroft’s forensic polling has unearthed that very few voters have actually registered Miliband’s phrase, and even fewer know of its connotations. Miliband’s challenge come 2015 will be to convert this clever phrase into a tangible programme for government.
The Labour party has risen from the brink of extinction in 2010 to at least be in contention at the next general election. This is in itself is a fine achievement, for Labour has not limited the Conservative party to one term in office since 1970. Indeed, on every occasion bar one when Labour has left government, it has lost the next election even more heavily. Few in Labour’s ranks will feel safe with the current polling, but the prospect of Miliband delivering his own government’s midterm review inches ever closer.
Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna, Conservatives, David Cameron, Douglas Alexander, Ed Miliband, George Osborne, Jim McGovern, Labour, Liz Kendall, Lord Ashcroft, Nick Clegg, Rachel Reeves