The ugliest intray
This time last year, the Conservatives were wondering what the hell had gone wrong. They were the party of the unfettered market, which had spent most of its time trying – and failing – to restrict the free movement of labour. They were the party of fiscal discipline, that somehow found the cash for a tax cut for Britain’s top earners. And most of all, they were the natural party of government, without a majority and careening towards a heavy defeat towards the man they thought was their ace-in-the-hole, ‘Red Ed’ Miliband.
A year on, and what’s changed? Well, David Cameron looks a little bit more like the Marshmallow Man who laid waste to New York at the climax of Ghostbusters. But other than that, 2013 in politics was much ado about nothing, a tale full of sound, fury and no fewer than five ‘make-or-break’ speeches by Messrs Clegg, Cameron and Miliband. This was a year in which things neither fluxed, flowed, withered nor changed their state.
To recap: Labour’s collection of Labour loyalists and Liberal defectors leaves the party at around the 36-38 per cent mark, while the Conservatives remain in what you might call ‘the John Major zone’ at 29-31 per cent. The Liberal Democrats, thanks to a coalition of anti-Conservative partisans in farm country, libertarian hipsters in the cities, and the close relations of party members, are on life support at 8-10 per cent. Meanwhile, Ukip are doing well, but the British electoral system means that they don’t really matter, so we can now move onto the next paragraph without unearthing their vote share. (8-17 per cent, in case you were wondering).
This puts political commentators in the unenviable position of a television pundit with a half-time score of four goals to nil, desperately keen to pretend that there is something up for grabs, but horribly aware that, barring a unforgivable implosion, the result is, as they say, a foregone conclusion.
Not that vulnerabilities don’t remain for Labour: beyond the leadership’s core preoccupations, large areas of public policy, from libraries to the future of legal aid, remain a matter for conjecture rather than certainty. When asked to describe Labour, voters still see the party as a device for funneling the money of hardworking people – hyphenated or otherwise – towards the indolent, the foreign and the actively criminal. An astute centre-right government could hand the party a pasting. But the Tories, in Lynton Crosby, have a campaign chief who is determined to refight the 2005 election, which put ‘the blues’ on the right side of every issue, and the wrong side of an electoral pasting.
That means that the overwhelmingly likely outcome of the next election remains a 2005-style scenario: Labour in office in possession of a healthy if not a thumping majority, the Conservatives ever closer to becoming a party of one region, and the Liberal Democrats fighting it out with a comedian for the position of most banal contributor to a Question Time panel.
That still makes 2014 a make-or-break year for Labour, but not in the way you might expect. The party is now less than two years away from returning to office, and the party is not remotely prepared for what happens next. No incoming Labour prime minister – not Attlee, not Wilson, and certainly not Blair – has had an uglier intray than Ed Miliband will have in 2015, and yet most of the party is spending its time gearing up for a government that will enact a series of left-wing fantasies. Labour has two years before the next election. It’s time to start talking about what happens after.