In 2004 the Liberal Democrats gained a 123 seats. Labour kept calm, carried on, and duly won a third general election. In 2013 the United Kingdom Independence party won 139 seats, and now the whole coalition agreement is up for sale.
That puts a Conservative majority firmly in the realms of science fiction rather than political science. Having blown the 2010 election by running to the right, the Tories are now set to do the same in 2015. But a Labour majority is not a done deal yet either, and the party is running out of opportunities to fall short when it doesn’t matter.
Short of juggling gelignite around the cabinet table, I’m not sure what more the Conservatives could have done in the past year to make David Cameron a one-term prime minister, and yet, after all that, Labour still only got 29 per cent of the vote.
The temptation is to join the coalition in auctioning off bits of the party platform to UKIP, but that won’t work either. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are making the same mistake that Gordon Brown and Cameron made with Nick Clegg; you can’t beat the populist party by agreeing with it. If the Tories did something as eye-catchingly insane as introduce a two-tier flat tax – UKIP managing to turn a stupid but simple idea into a stupid but complex one there – then I doubt that a Labour politician would talk about the need to learn the lessons for Conservatism. UKIP, like the Liberal Democrats before them, don’t want to be treated like a regular political party. The way to beat them is to hold them to the light, not to slip into the dark ourselves.
No, Labour’s problem isn’t that Labour is too far to the left or too wedded to the right. The problem is that Labour isn’t sufficiently anything. The party has replaced its blank sheet with a colouring book: a series of promising outlines in need of a good colouring in. The problem with colouring books, however, is that anyone can pick one up and have a go, and the Tories are desperate to give the whole thing a going over in red crayon.
Take borrowing; if, as seems likely, Labour comes into power in 2015 with the economy still stagnant and suffering from chronic unemployment, then borrowing will almost certainly increase in 2015-16 to finance a hefty stimulus package. This is a tough, but not impossible, sell politically. There is a huge difference between borrowing to build houses or transport, which people see a clear and present benefit to, and borrowing for borrowing’s sake. Unless told otherwise, people assume that Labour’s spending priorities are lazy people and foreigners. A simple rightward lurch on immigration doesn’t fix that problem; what’s needed is a clear and cogent explanation of what Labour’s borrowing would actually finance.
That means a full and frank conversation, not just with the electorate about what Labour would cut and what Labour would finance, but also within the party. Colouring in those outlines will mean making decisions many people in the party will not like. That’s a discussion we can have at a time of our choosing, or one that can be forced upon us by the Tories.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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